12 Warning Signs of a Cult and Psychological Manipulation

hands holding puppet strings

Cults have always been a source of fascination. Groups like NXIVM, children of God, the Manson Family, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple have spawned dozens of books, films, and cult documentaries. A recent Netflix docuseries called Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult has brought this form of coercive control back into the spotlight.

The 3-part series on the 7M cult explores how a group of young TikTok dancers allegedly fell under the influence of a church pastor who also became their talent manager and siphoned off most of their income. Some former members of the group also filed police reports of continuing sexual abuse.

These wild tales can make you wonder how anyone can fall under the spell of a charismatic cult leader. In some cases, it leads to victim blaming.

But research shows that powerful cult leaders are highly adept at using psychological manipulation to control followers. Cult members typically don’t realize they are being brainwashed.

If you suspect that you or someone you love may be in a similar situation, it’s important to recognize the signs of a cult. This blog will introduce you to the warning signs of a cult as well as the steps to take to leave a cult and rebuild your life.

Research shows that powerful cult leaders are highly adept at using psychological manipulation to control followers. Cult members typically don’t realize they are being brainwashed. Click To Tweet

WHAT IS A CULT?

Experts continue to search for a standard cult definition. In general, a cult is a group of people who are typically controlled by a self-appointed, charismatic leader. In general, the cult leader uses psychological manipulation tactics and coercive control to dominate cult members.

The foundation of a group’s ideology may be rooted in a variety or areas, such as:

  • Religious beliefs
  • Political theories
  • Philosophical concepts
  • Lifestyle activities

According to research, people who join cults often find it beneficial at first but then they may eventually realize that they are being brainwashed. Some followers leave while others choose to stay despite wanting to leave. Still others may not recognize that they are being controlled and consider it to be a positive experience.

12 WARNING SIGNS OF A CULT

There are many signs that an organization may be a cult. Some of the following signs come from the Cult Education Institute while others are based on the work of cult researchers. Here are 12 warning signs of a cult:

  1. The truth: In cults, there’s a belief that the leader exclusively knows the “truth”—some transcendent concept that provides a solution for people’s biggest problems and fears.
  2. Love bombing: Cults often shower new recruits with love, a sense of community, a place to live, and a sense of hope and purpose.
  3. Thought reform: A 2022 study shows that cult leaders use various forms of mind control to influence followers and get them to adopt shared beliefs and values.
  4. Authoritarianism: The leader makes all rules and has undue influence over all aspects of members’ lives—finances, relationships, living situations, and more. This control comes without any sort of accountability for the leader.
  5. No questions allowed: There is usually a lack of tolerance for criticism of or questions about the group or leader. There is a firm belief that the leader or group is right about everything.
  6. Financial control: The leader or group maintains complete control over the financial budget and expenses without providing any statements to members.
  7. Fear factor: The leader or group instills irrational fears about the outside world, such as anxiety about conspiracies, impending disasters, eternal damnation, or persecution.
  8. Need to improve: Members believe they are incapable of ever being “good enough” yet are constantly seeking validation from the leader. This can lead to toxic perfectionism.
  9. Leaving is forbidden: In cults, there is no valid reason why any member would leave, and there’s a belief that any member who does leave is wrong or even evil.
  10. Abuse is common: Followers may experience various forms of abuse and may face threats of physical harm, shunning, and other forms of punishment.
  11. Gaining attention: Abuses may have been documented in the media or investigated by law enforcement. This is viewed as persecution by the outside world and increases an us-vs-them mentality.
  12. Blackmail: Members may be coerced into proving their loyalty by engaging in acts that are illegal or immoral. Then the group uses that information as blackmail that will be leaked if the follower attempts to leave. 

HOW TO KNOW IF SOMEONE IS IN A CULT

When someone joins a cult, it can be difficult for friends and family members to realize it. It can also be challenging for individuals themselves to accept that their newfound community is actually a cult.

Here are some of the ways to know that someone is a member of a cult.

  1. Members tend to exhibit a sudden and extreme devotion to the leader or group, dropping previously held beliefs and values.
  2. Members often live together in communal housing.
  3. As a follower’s involvement deepens, their personal identity starts to blend and blur with that of the leader, the group, and/or God.
  4. Followers refuse to respond to any criticism or questions about the leader or group, viewing it instead as “persecution” of the group or leader.
  5. People start using jargon, speech patterns, and mannerisms specific to the group. This can sound like the person is reading from a script.
  6. Members seem to lose the ability to think independently while increasing reliance on the leader or group to solve problems.
  7. Followers tend to lose interest in past goals and hobbies, replacing them with an extreme focus on the objectives of the leader or group.
  8. A significant decrease in sense of humor and a loss of the ability to do anything on the spur-of-the-moment.
  9. People in cults tend to isolate themselves from former friends and family and may become secretive about activities related to the group or leader.
  10. People find ways to justify the leader’s or group’s actions regardless of how cruel, hard-hearted, or severe they may seem.
  11. Individuals avoid former members, viewing them as bad, evil, or wrong.

WHO JOINS A CULT?

Cults typically prey upon people who are in vulnerable situations. For example, they may target any of the following:

  • Drug and alcohol addicts
  • Teenage runaways
  • People who have lost a loved one
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional trauma survivors
  • People in new situations (such as college students)
  • People struggling with mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders and clinical depression

These individuals may be searching for purpose in life, a sense of community, or stability. They may find these things in a cult, at least temporarily.

In other instances, people may be born into a cult and grow up in the group. These children don’t know any other way of life.

HOW TO GET OUT OF A CULT

Leaving a cult can be challenging on many levels. You may lack a support network outside the group, financial resources, or a place to stay. Steps that can help you remove yourself from a cult including the following:

 

  • Gain awareness: Recognizing the signs of a cult is the first step in gaining the motivation to leave. For example, do you feel like you’re being controlled? Are you being coerced to engage in activities that make you feel uncomfortable? Are you or others in your group being harmed physically, financially, sexually, or emotionally?

 

  • Connect with support: If you’re able to, reconnect to people you trust or reach out to mental health professionals who are outside of the cult. They can provide you with emotional support and may be able to help you when you’re ready to leave.

 

  • Make a plan to leave: Decide on a time when you can exit the cult, keeping your physical safety in mind. For some people, this may take a while, so you may have to go through the motions for some time. In other cases, you may want to depart quickly.

 

  • Know where you’ll stay: Find a safe and secure place you can stay at first. Check with family or trusted friends to see if you can stay with them for a while.

 

  • Leave: When the time comes, leave. Be aware that you may need to sneak out secretly, leave personal belongings behind, or leave without saying goodbye to the people you love.

 

  • Recover: Rebuilding your life can be challenging. Finding new friends, a job, and a new daily routine can be stressful. Research on former cult members shows that you may feel confused as you try to reconnect with your own identity, personal values, and beliefs.

As you recover, be sure to reflect on your experience, noticing both the positives and negatives. Spend time on self-discovery, getting in touch with what inspired you to join the group, what kept you in it, and what motivated you to leave. Learn what you can from the experience, forgive yourself, and move forward.

One of the best things you can do as you go through the post-cult recovery process is seek out mental health help. Going to talk therapy or joining a support group can be very helpful.

If you experienced trauma of any kind during your time in the cult, consider eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy or trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Research shows that both EMDR and TF-CBT can be beneficial for trauma survivors.

Similarly, if you love someone who is trying to leave a cult, offer to help them with their exit plan and provide emotional support as they rebuild their life.

Leaving a cult is hard, but exiting an unhealthy controlling environment will be beneficial in the long run.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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