How do you help a loved one who is in a cult?

More and more people are being affected by the online personal-spiritual development cults.

How do you know they are in a cult?

It’s easy to tell: their personality will change, they will start using words or patterns that aren’t usual for them, they will be spending a lot of time with a particular group (probably spending silly money to do so). They will be over effusive about the cult leader (in a way that seems at odds with what you see), and they will most likely claim to have found their tribe – where they belong, where they are ‘heard’, where their people are.

Oh, and they could use the word ‘coachable’. This is not a good thing – ever. It no longer means ‘being open to being coached’. It means ‘willing to abandon critical thinking and personal empowerment’.

First of all, protect yourself.

For your sake, and for theirs. Don’t get sucked into the narrative.

Be kind. This includes avoiding blaming them, calling them stupid, generally yelling at them. You might find you’ve been cast in this role by the cult leader, who is cunning and wily.

It happens a lot. It’s a very clever way of using you to help the cult leader isolate their victim further. If this has happened to you, you’ll need to disentangle yourself and do your own healing.

Second, don’t burn bridges.

Distance yourself as much as you can/need, but leave a door open. As and when they are ready to leave, they will be grateful they can still reach out to you.

Be patient. This could take a while. Years, even. It is quite normal for the waking up process to be slow, and leaving to be even slower.

Grieve for who they were, get on with your life, find new normal and new happy. You being happy, and balanced and living your life are the best examples you can give them.

Third, show them what is toxic in their situation.

Without blaming them, their cult or their cult leader. Show them where they have adopted toxic behaviours from their leader, things that are out of character with their real personality. Highlight where their personality has warped to cope with the cult.

Be gentle. This will very much depend on your relationship with them, and how open they are to what you want to show. And it depends on how the pre-cult-them whould have reacted to those same behaviours.

Remember, they most likely think they are acting for the highest good, changing the world, and they will have been conditioned into believing super toxic patterns are reasonable or even necessary as part of the mission.

Fourth, don’t blame yourself when you screw up.

You probably will. This is not an ordinary bully you are challenging, this is a cult leader who has lots of narcissistic tendencies (not a diagnosis, just a description of patterns). The cult leader will do whatever they need to to get what they want, and they do not care what damage they do in the process.

Be understanding. Remember your loved one is vulnerable at the moment. They have been manipulated and controlled. Their view of reality has been warped. You can’t rely on doing things that would have made perfect sense if they were in their right minds. It will be easy to accidentally further isolate them and push them deeper into the cult.

They are, to all intents and purposes, unwell. But they are not weak. If they were weak the cult would have used them up and spat them out already.

Fifth, leave major interventions to the professionals.

If you have immediate concerns for their safety, call in support.

Be wary. You still want to protect yourself and keep doors open the best you can. There is a high chance that if you rescue someone they will resent you, because of the damage done to their sense of reality. Deconstruction takes time.

You do have a chance of speaking to your loved one’s heart, and of reminding them of who they are – whether from a distance while you wait for them, or by gently shining a spotlight on toxic patterns. But don’t expect it to be easy, linear or quick.

If this is you and you want to talk, reach out.

With love, Sara

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

person as silhoutte at the end of long dark tunnel

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