Jan 18, 2022 in Online Consultations

Cults in our midst - How to recognise a cult

A cult can be defined as an unethical organization using manipulative techniques to undermine a person’s freedom of mind.

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Cults in our midst - How to recognise a cult

By Ingo Michehl, M.Ed.  (ingozen@gmail.com)

What is a cult? 

In contrast to a cult, an ethical organization has nothing to hide. Its purpose and paradigm (belief system) is clearly defined and public, presented to potential new members before joining. Likewise, duties or responsibilities expected upon joining/involved in membership would also be presented beforehand. A beneficial group will enhance an individual’s freedom of choice and personal power.

A cult can be defined as an unethical organization using manipulative techniques to undermine a person’s freedom of mind, to limit and direct their choices for the organization’s ends. A cult’s main activities are recruiting and training, money-raising (sales/fundraising) and political activism. The purpose is to recruit, train and use/exploit new members to the ends of the organization, in effect (i.e.) it’s leader.

How does a cult work? 

Simply speaking: Someone has learned how to use his personal power to get others to do what he wants. The cult leader establishes himself an a self-anointed, god-like position and gets others to live his dream. If you’re not living your dream – you’re living someone else’s!

As discussed in my master’s thesis “Cult Trauma and Recovery” (which you can download at trancenet.org/moonism -> public interest), cults use to varying degrees a combination of highly effective psychological influence techniques, aiming at the thoughts, emotions and behavior of an individual. 

How do you recognize a cult? 

Here are some “symptoms” or characteristics that determine the degree rather than nature of a cult:

  • A living cult leader who holds a special position, often that of an infallible, god-like nature, revered by the followers; he may not be questioned or criticized. Sometimes, when the original cult leader has died, one or more of his followers may take over that role.
  • A clear, hierarchical structure of authority and obedience; 
  • Each member has a direct leader or central figure he reports to and who influences or dictates personal choices (where and how to live, what to do, who to be with etc.)
  • A new recruit or member goes through often drastic personality or character changes, changes in beliefs, feelings and behavior that may baffle former friends and family members (e.g. from liberal atheist to right-wing religious fanatic in a matter of days) 
  • Behavior Control: Strictly regimented daily schedule with little or no time for personal reflection.
  • Love Bombing/Emotional Influence: “You don’t give a baby steak – you give it only what it can accept: love and milk!” Recruiters use bright smiles, presents, exuberant expressions of interest & love to “help” recruits or “spiritual children” overcome doubts, reduce their level of criticism, and accept the “new truth” (e.g. fruit plate in the morning w/ “God loves you, Steve!” on it. Or “Wow! You’re so interesting. Tell me more!”) In the Moonies we weren’t told about Moon being the Messiah until we were “ready.” You boil a frog by SLOWLY increasing the temperature. Else it’ll jump out.
  • Environment Control/Isolation: Secluded workshops. Connection to former friends and family are negated, demonized (“Satan works through the ones that love you most”) or cut off, especially if they are “negative” towards the group. (In a more sophisticated, more established cult this may be superseded by public relations efforts to keep a good “image” through keeping the family ‘happy’
  • Information/Thought Control: News media, TV, telephone contact are discouraged or even demonized as “Satan’s instruments of deception.” Doubts, criticism and questions are negated or postponed. If you don’t accept the teaching it’s YOUR problem. You’re unspiritual, worldly etc.
  • Loaded Language: Group-specific, stereotypical words and phrases evoking specific pictures and responses (e.g. depicting not only the problem but the solution: “He has a ‘Cain-Abel problem!’ in Moonism – means he’s jealous and disobedient as Cain was towards Abel and needs to deny himself, repent and unite with his leader.)
  • Mystical Manipulation: Clever, deceptive strategies employed to create magic/spiritual experiences validating the group teaching (e.g. recruiter tells lecturer personal info about the new recruit and lecturer addresses new recruit in lecture with “special message from God”. Recruit thinks “Wow! How could he know this? This must me from God!”
  • WHITE LIES/DECEPTION: Deception is ok as “the end justifies the means.” “Outside” and “inside” teachings often differ quite drastically (e.g. in the “Unification Church” we’d tell a Christian “yeah, I’m Christian, too. I love Jesus.” – but in service Rev. Moon would say “Jesus failed and I’m here to correct it! He bows before me in humble gratitude.” My leader once even forbid me to attend a Christmas service saying “You’re not Christian! What do you want there??? Go fund-raising!”

What can you do to protect yourself and those you love? 

It’s a thousand times easier to prevent someone from joining than to help them leave! How?

ASK QUESTIONS! The right questions. Like…

What is the name of your organization? Who is it associated with?

Who is your leader or founder? Has he had conflicts with the law/been in jail?

What do you believe? Tell me in a nutshell! (If they quiver and defer you – “you have to come to one of our presentations/workshops to find out!” – that’s a RED FLAG!!! Don’t go. Or go being very critical and discerning, ready to walk any time whenever you feel something strange. Before you go, ask “do you want me to join as a full-time member? Do you want me to give up what I’m doing or my friends and family?” They’ll say “No! Of course not!” – and if they DO ask you to change your plans to attend a workshop or another lecture, YOU have a right to get up and walk out, saying “YOU LIED!”

You see, in a cult, THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS! Meaning, it’s ok for them to lie to you in order to get you to join – cause it’s for your own benefit, or so they believe.

If you do go listen, always ask yourself “what are they saying? Is it true?” and you can always distance yourself from a proclamation by saying “interesting perspective!” 

Trust your intuition!!! Look inside YOURSELF for the answers, not with someone else. Don’t give up your personal power to someone else. And if you did or if you feel it's being threatened – just get it back! It’s just a choice. You can always get up and leave with words like “This is bullshit! I’m outa here!” Because you're free.

How do you help someone who’s involved? Or yourself? How do you respond?

1. Do your own research (wise up!):

Read Steven Hassan’s book “Combating Cult Mind Control” or Margaret Singer’s “Cults in our Midst” (Amazon)

https://www.icsahome.com - the home page of the International Cultic Studies Association

If possible, as quickly as possible get an expert involved; or find an ex-member of a cult who is willing to help by relating his own story. I also have limited capacities for cult counseling and coaching, so feel free to contact me.

DO NOT oppose or criticize the cult member – it will drive them further in.

Remind them of positive emotional experiences BEFORE the cult (as the cult will most likely negate them)

Be understanding and interested, though expressing some reservation and the desire to discuss things further in person (ask to discuss it alone – “just you and I!” or you’ll be blocked off by a cult member); share their enthusiasm and tell them “you got to tell me more about this – in person!”

Try to arrange a meeting and find an ex-cult member to be there with you to discuss the matter. Let the former cult member relate his experience (it’s actually good if he/she was in a different group). Are there parallels? Ask questions (help me understand this.. do you mean..?), rather than making statements.

How do you relate to an ex-member? 

Allow them to be as they are. Value and respect them and their experience. Point out the positive things they have learned and experienced. It helped me to tell myself “Everything happens exactly the way it’s supposed to. And what I’ve experienced was exactly what I needed to get to where I am today.”

If you’re interested, ask if they would like to share their story. Ask intelligent questions. If you’re secure in your own beliefs - enter their madness and tell them what Lesly told me (sincerely): If it’s the truth, I want to join. Then engage in dialogue about the beliefs and ask logical questions, like “If there was a contradiction between this new revelation and the older revelation - the bible - to which authority would you hold?”

What do you do after leaving a cult? 

Spend time alone. In nature. With calm and peaceful, healing music. In silence. Listen to the wind, the plants, the earth. Allow yourself to be tuned into the healthy vibration of nature again – just like a tuning fork that resonates with another.

Allow your mind to flow. Don’t repress the feelings that come up – anger, pain, regret, remorse, grief… Accept them and love yourself regardless of those feelings and outcomes. Today is not yesterday and tomorrow is not today. The time is NOW. The place is HERE. Be yourself. Give yourself permission to RELAX and GO WITH THE FLOW.

LIVE YOUR OWN DREAM – or you’re living someone else’s. Per default.

Ask yourself “what do I REALLY want?”

Dream. (e.g. with music: visualize “how would my life look if I was really happy?”)

Write down your dreams and put a date on it (e.g. diving on the Great Barrier Reef; July 2002). 

Let go of hatred, resentment and blame. Allow yourself the feelings, acknowledge them (hitting a pillow or working out helps) – then let them go. Whoever abused you did so because you allowed them to, and because that was what they knew to do in the moment. 

Rather than continuing the suffering ask yourself “what can I learn from this? Why did I create this experience?”

Spend time/surround yourself with loving, kind, positive people.

Read positive, helpful books. Like – walk into a second-hand book store and just pick up books you feel attracted to. 

Follow and trust your intuition.

How do you find freedom and peace of mind?

Re-evaluate your beliefs, your maps of reality: Are they supportive and correct? If not, why not change them for those that are?

“Do I really believe that? Is that from me? Does this still serve me?”

If you don’t like something – change it. "What would be a positive, supportive way of expressing that?"

Learn to appreciate the moment and be grateful for what you have and are. Be in the moment. Ask yourself "What can I be grateful for today?"

Remember: Between black and white – are the colors of the rainbow.

Expand your mind. Read good books. Do meditation and yoga. Sit under a tree or out in the open nature and – listen. Go for nature hikes and do sports. Walk, hike, run, skate - whatever! Listen to silence, the space between the notes that creates the music. Listen to the earth, the wind, the plants. 

Eat and exercise well – take care of yourself. You’re worth it!

And choose a new vision for yourself and your life, how you can make a positive difference.

"You got to have a vision!" Arnold Schwarzenegger

If you'd like some support, contact me for a free exploration session at coachingo.net

Book/Internet recommendations: 

Steven Hassan – Combatting Cult Mind Control AND Releasing the Bonds (amazon.com)


icsahome.com - International Cultic Studies Association founded by Michael Langone, a cult expert

Margaret Singer – Cults in Our Midst

Steven Covey - The 7 habits of highly effective people

Wayne Dyer – You’ll See It When You Believe It, Real Magic (even though he was a Mormon, which is another cult in my opinion)

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