Hi, my name is Chris Shelton and I am a cult survivor and now advocate against destructive cults. I was involved for decades with the Church of Scientology but I’ve found since leaving that group four years ago that high control groups which engage in undue influence or cohersive persuasion have a lot in common. If you’re watching this, you may know someone who is in one of these groups and want to know what you should and shouldn’t do to help them see the error of their ways and get them out of that group. Now I’m not a trained psychologist or psychotherapist, but I have helped people escape from Scientology and I’ve helped some others recover. Let’s go over some things and see if some of what I’ve learned can help you too.
First off, there are two things we need to go over that are very important. People are free to believe whatever they want and as long as they aren’t breaking the law, they can act how they want. It’s not your place to take control of anyone else’s life or how they live it. Tolerance and respect are not just words, but are shown through actions and if you are going to help someone out of a destructive cult, you have to demonstrate these things to them.
People who join cults aren’t Martians. They have simply adopted a different and extreme belief system which can lead to extreme and alarming actions which may not be in their best interest. Over time, these beliefs and ideas can re-shape the person’s personality to something quite different from the person they were before and more like the cult leader and its doctrine. But don’t ever forget they are people too with the same range of thoughts and emotions as anyone else.
Second, not all groups with odd beliefs or practices are destructive cults. Before you take action against the Church of Cthulu or the Center for Enlightened Sacrosanct Therapy, be sure you know that it is a coercive group. Don’t assume anything because you know where that leads. Cult specialist Dr. Janja Lalich put together a checklist to evaluate a group to see if it is what we call an abusive self-sealing social system. A link to the full checklist is in the video description below and includes:
1. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
2. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
3. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
There are many other characteristics to look at to be sure. Just because a group acts cult-like doesn’t make it destructive and just because people are passionate about something they are involved in doesn’t mean they are brainwashed. These two points, tolerance and ensuring the group is destructive in the first place, are crucial. If you skip them or don’t respect their importance, you only have yourself to blame if your actions recoil on you.
Now with that in mind, the first piece of advice I can give is to educate yourself. There’s a lot more to know that just Janja Lalich’s checklist. There are books and lectures online by reputable and knowledgeable authors. Some examples are:
- Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism
- Margaret Singer’s Cults in Our Midst
- Steve Hassan’s Combating Cult Mind Control
- Robert Cialdini’s Influence
When talking to someone in a high control group, don’t antagonize them, get into name calling or labelling. Don’t call the group a cult or “fanatics” or that sort of thing. Just skip every temptation to do any of that. Also skip throwing around any psychiatric terms, like calling their leader or members “psychopaths” or even “mentally disturbed.” Imagine how you would feel if someone said that about your job or your church. That’s exactly how they’re going to feel.
I mentioned Lifton earlier. He’s a psychiatrist and he wrote:
“There is need for psychiatric humility here. I think that it might be stressed that the whole cult phenomena is a social, psychological, spiritual and economic problem, and that the answer may not be psychiatric at all.”
Arthur Deikman, a San Francisco psychiatrist also wrote in his book The Wrong Way Home:
“I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because people have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity, and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home.”
When someone joins a high control group, it can sometimes be hard to talk to them or reach them at all. So everything I say here about this applies whether you can only talk to them once a week or once a month or every few months. This also applies to written communications as well as in person or on the phone. It’s important not to cut your connection if you can, because once you do, you may not get it back. Encourage communication in any form possible, even mundane conversation is better than nothing at all. The point of maintaining communication is so they know that under any circumstances, you are a safe place for them to go.
Be open and honest but at the same time, listen more than you talk. Get them to tell you why they are part of the group, what it gives them and why they feel it’s important. Do not hint or imply that you are interested in joining, more that you are curious and simply want to know more about why they joined or what they feel about it. They’ll usually be very happy that you are curious and will tell you way more than you want to know.
You are not going to argue someone out of a cult situation in one or two conversations. It doesn’t work that way. It can take years to get someone out of a destructive cult and you are just going to have to deal with that fact. More often than not, the trigger that gets someone to get away is not because someone talked them out of it but because the cult itself does something to the person which forces them to see that it’s not the nice, benign group it pretends to be. You being a safe place for them to go to means that you will be the first call they make for help.
Also, don’t send them links to critical articles or clippings from books or magazines that you think are going to show them how bad or evil the cult is. Just be patient, helpful and caring more than argumentative or confrontational. Ask questions about things that don’t make sense and see what kind of responses you get. More often than not, they’ll brush off the more irrational points of their cult’s dogma or beliefs, but merely bringing them up as questions can sometimes be enough to plant seeds of doubt, whereas arguing won’t.
You can also ask questions about how their life has changed, whether they are still in touch with friends or family members they used to be in touch with, whether they still do activities they used to like doing, go out and see movies or read books, etc. Reminding them of their pre-cult life and persona is important but should be done subtly. Along this line, always try to keep them up-to-date on what is happening with family events or gatherings, events such as weddings or new babies and that sort of thing, keeping them in the loop whenever possible.
Questions about how they like their current life, schedule and the leadership of the group are also good ways to get them thinking about their current situation compared to past situations. Finally you can ask if there is anything about the group or their situation that isn’t so great or they don’t like so much but don’t be surprised if the answer is “Everything is wonderful in this best of all possible worlds.”
Just forget deprogramming or anything associated with using the cult’s own tactics against its members. That is ineffective at best and harmful at worst. More often than not, deprogramming doesn’t work and makes things even worse. It’s the sort of thing you can’t come back from and we already know about it from the experience of people who did this nonsense in the 70s and 80s. Every one of them that I’ve talked to has told me to just skip it.
You don’t need to be an expert on the cult language or beliefs but do try to get a basic understanding of what it’s all about so you don’t inadvertently offend. Sometimes family and friends can get very deep into this and spend hours and days and weeks trying to learn all about the cult and what goes on in it. That’s really not necessary. You are not going to argue someone out of their beliefs by coming off like you know more about those beliefs than they do. Trust me, that is a losing proposition 100% of the time. Even if you win the debate, you lose the argument and the person. Sure, engage with them if you really disagree with something, but just be mindful of what you are doing and how you are doing it. Care and love and tolerance are going to win you much more ground than proving their beliefs wrong. If you want an example of what I’m talking about, check out an interview I did with my mom, who managed to stay connected with me for years when I was in Scientology and she had left it behind. The cult was encouraging me to disconnect from her but I didn’t because she did what I’m talking about here. The link to our talk is in the video description below.
As a friend or family member, if you are talking to other family or friends, try to stay coordinated so friends and family know what each other are doing and saying and don’t randomly take some action which throws everyone else off. In fact, sometimes you may not be the right person to be communicating with the cult member at all. If things are tense or get tense between you and the cult member, maybe back off for a bit if they have someone else they trust more or have a closer relationship with.
In some groups, the members may think the leader has pyschic abilities or powers to know what they are thinking and doing. This may sound silly, but trust me it’s not. Other groups monitor mail and phone calls or demand that members report what they talked about with people outside the cult. You may need to let them know that you are mindful about that and you want to respect them and that you don’t want to cross any lines or get into anything that will get them in trouble. Research into whatever destructive cult you are dealing with should give you some idea of whether this kind of thing is going on or not and how to deal with it.
Obviously if during the course of contact with the cult member, you find out they are breaking the law or committing crimes, you need to contact the authorities. None of this advice is meant to say that you should violate your own principles or morals. But of course, keep it to yourself if you alert the authorities to potential crimes within the group or you can be sure the cult member will never ever want to talk to you again.
And finally, make sure when you are talking to someone in a cult that the cult is not all you talk about. I like my job and I like movies, but I don’t want to talk about them all the time. Like I said earlier, even mundane conversation can be helpful and is better than nothing.
Now a few last thoughts:
Before you even think about doing something like an intervention, get the assistance and advice of cult exit counsellors and therapists. Also do this to help if the person leaves the cult. Do not ever ever ever tell someone who leaves a cult “I told you so” or “It’s about time you came to your senses” or in any way try to make them regret their earlier decisions or ideas. You gain nothing and potentially lose everything you’ve gained when you make a person feel stupid or bad or wrong for having joined a cult because they just might go back. It’s happened.
Recovery can be a long and involved process, even for people who have only been involved in a destructive cult for a short period. There is no one-size-fits-all or “stages of recovery” which you need to follow or impose on someone. It’s unique for everyone even for different people coming out of the same control system. Some will need therapy but not everyone. But they do all need your support. If you can imagine that the person needed your help when they were in, they need it 10X more after they get out.
Remember, love and tolerance and understanding are amongst the most powerful forces in the human psyche and they will get you far more mileage than arguing or anger or even worry and concern. I hope this advice is helpful to you but it’s really just the beginning. Do what I said and get yourself educated on what you need to know before you make any serious blunders that could ruin your whole relationship. I’m sure there are about fifty things that I’ve forgotten or haven’t mentioned here, so go ahead and leave any feedback or other ideas in the comments section below. My channel has a lot of videos about Scientology and other destructive cults that you should also check out. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below. Thank you for watching.