There’s no one way to heal
We’ve all come out of groups that told us our leaders’ had the ONE, highest path. THE answer to every single problem we have: how to know God, what to eat, who to have—or not have—sex with, what to take when we’re sick, what to believe in, what to think, to do, to feel.
And it’s THE Right answer for everyone on the planet. They may not know that yet—but eventually they’ll learn the wisdom of my leader’s path. Some day.
Sometimes coming out of a toxic group, some of us may have a similar idea. It’s obvious we need to attack the leader. Or it’s obvious we should just move on. Or it’s obvious we shouldn’t give up our spiritual struggle just because this guy wasn’t the real deal.
And everyone would just be happier if they did it my way. And they’ll discover the truth of that eventually. Some day.
I may be wrong, but I think people are much more complex than that. We were all part of a group. We shared many core values and beliefs. We did many of the same things. And we all hung out together.
But we’re all still different people. And what works for me may—or may not—work for you.
And no matter how loud or impassioned I get, my answer can be right for me, wrong for you.
There. Is. No. One. Way. To Heal.
We can get ideas from others who have been in similar situations. But in the end, we’ve got to find answers that work best for ourselves.
So, yes, attack the leader and the group. So, yes, just move on. So, yes, find a new way to grow spiritually.
Use therapy if it works for you. Use self-help forums and blogs—like this one—to think things out with others. Get energy healing. Become a skeptic. Strengthen your aura.
If it soothes the pain for you, that’s good enough.
Does everyone need therapy, exit counseling, psychic healing…?
Short answer: No.
More nuanced answer: HELL, no.
Every toxic group, abusive church, or cult is different. Every individual is different. Everyone’s life has been different.
The vast majority of former group members of a labeled “cult” never seek professional help.
Easy enough to demonstrate. Some experts label large groups like Scientology, Transcendental Meditation—or even the Catholic Church—as “cults.” But no matter what the label, people leave these groups every day.
Some simply feel it no longer meets their needs. Some continue casual contact because they see some value there. Some hear or see something they can’t accept—perhaps sharing their doubts with people they know. (These people are the most likely to tell you to “just get over it.”)
And many don’t call their group a cult—especially people under 35. “Cult” happened to parents or grandparents—the “hippies.” “Cult” is a rock band name. It just means “fan.” Or it’s a punchline to a lame joke: “Heaven’s Gate was one shoe endorsement the people at Nike never saw coming.” (Anthony Taylor, in an early video clip.) These individuals will likely say, “It wasn’t a cult. It’s just a church. Cults are like Jonestown. I can deal with this.”
AND many current members report their memberships add invaluable things to their life. If someone tells me they’re a happy Transcendental Meditator, for example, I take them at face value. I don’t secretly believe they’ll “come to their senses” some time in the future. If a group meets their needs, it meets their needs.
AND a significant minority of members do report abuse and trauma. Many deal with their challenges through self-help: books, blogs, web sites, forums, listservs, family, or friends.
BUT a percentage do seek help to speed their healing. Whether it’s through exit counseling (psychoeducation), pastoral counseling, spiritual counseling, support groups, alternative health—or credentialed mental health professionals.
Because toxic groups, subgroups, and individuals are all so different that one person may have had only pleasurable experiences in his group. But the guy sitting right beside him may have experienced deep trauma.
It’s human nature to think your experience or attitude is the rational one—and anyone saying something else must be wrong, lying—or crazy.
Individuals deal with their challenges in the way that works for them—and is most comfortable. You can find legitimate healing in any of these ways.
I’m of the opinion that there is no “cult syndrome” that is best treated by a unique method from any tradition. You responded to the overwhelming stress of living through a toxic group—and the turmoil that follows leaving one—in your own way.
And that NO ONE—no cult expert, no mental health professional, no pastor, no family or friend—can tell you if you need therapy or counseling after spiritual or cultic abuse.
Fortunately, there’s someone right at hand who can figure out if you need help to heal.
Only you can know if you’d like help dealing with the pain or challenges you face. EVERYBODY else, even an “expert,” is just guessing—or applying gussied-up stereotypes.
There is no cookie-cutter counseling, treatment, or book that works for everybody. So, create your own therapy! You can experiment and find understandings, techniques, supportive contacts that work best for you. Even if you do so in collaboration with your chosen healer.
Maybe especially when you work with a professional. Don’t know about you, but I don’t want to ever again adopt someone else’s model without closely examining it—and making it my own.
You’re more likely, in my opinion, to experience healing if you understand how you respond uniquely, rather than shoehorning yourself into someone else’s model—or comparing yourself to someone else in recovery.
The very thoughts, “I should be further along by now—Susy is!” or “I must follow the expert’s rules, he knows better than me,” can become serious blocks to healing. Especially if a professional suggests them.
Some of our confusion may come from mistaking the concept “cult” for an actual, real thing (reification): This group is a Cult, that one isn’t.
“Cult” is at best a useful metaphor. I’m not aware of an operational definition for “cult” that gives a bright white-line separating cultic groups from non-cultic groups—or could form the basis of a hypothesis that could be researched. You can have a cultic relationship with or experience spiritual abuse in any group. Or with any family or individual.
So, how do I define a “cult”? To be honest, as a psychotherapist, I don’t concern myself overly much analyzing which groups are cultic—and which are not. I focus on “cultic relationships.” A relationship with any group becomes cultic when you experience high-intensity demands on time and resources that one or more core life areas stop working for you: relationships, career, finances, community, physical or emotional well-being, spirituality….
Using this view, a “cult” might be any organization that knowingly encourages destructive cultic relationships with its members to achieve its own goals for power, money, adulation, or personal gratification.
I focus on the cultic relationship because, in psychotherapy, personal responsibility is more powerful than blame.
Blame is about the past: Who did what to whom, when, and how many times. It’s clear the blame for cultic abuse lies with toxic-group leadership. They stand ready to exploit the vulnerabilities of their members — the loneliness, depression, idealism, gullibility, fear, and ambition all humans feel at one time or another.
Responsibility is about the future: Who will take the steps necessary to change in a positive direction. In psychotherapy, responsibility always lies with the client. Only the client can choose to improve his or her life.
This is true in treating healing from spiritual or cultic abuse as well. The leadership encouraged dysfunctional behavior. But your leader isn’t going to change — or make your life better. Only you can change harmful patterns and move on. My work as a therapist is to facilitate a client discovering for him- or herself how to root out the destructive aftereffects of a cultic relationship.
Change is possible at any moment. Your past does not predict your future.
P.S. Just an afterthought: Some people may very well have learned techniques or beliefs in their group that really work for them—and decide not to cutoff contact with them.
Something to think about: Even if you personally were not harmed, do you really want to support an abusive or negligent organization? Financially? Emotionally? By volunteering? With unqualified positive comments?