Post-Cult After Effects
Post-Cult After Effects
Margaret Thaler Singer, PhD
After exiting a cult, an individual may experience a period of intense and often conflicting emotions. She or he may feel relief to be out of the group, but also may feel grief over the loss of positive elements in the cult, such as friendships, a sense of belonging or the feeling of personal worth generated by the group's stated ideals or mission. The emotional upheaval of the period is often characterized by "post-cult trauma syndrome":
sense of loss
depression & suicidal thoughts
fear that not obeying the cult's wishes will result in God's wrath or loss of salvation
alienation from family, friends
sense of isolation, loneliness due to being surrounded by people who have no basis for understanding cult life
fear of evil spirits taking over one's life outside the cult
scrupulosity, excessive rigidity about rules of minor importance
panic disproportionate to one's circumstances
fear of going insane
confusion about right and wrong
The period of exiting from a cult is usually a traumatic experience and, like any great change in a person's life, involves passing through stages of accommodation to the change:
Disbelief/denial: "This can't be happening. It couldn't have been that bad."
Anger/hostility: "How could they/I be so wrong?" (hate feelings)
Self-pity/depression: "Why me? I can't do this."
Fear/bargaining: "I don't know if I can live without my group. Maybe I can still associate with it on a limited basis, if I do what they want."
Reassessment: "Maybe I was wrong about the group's being so wonderful."
Accommodation/acceptance: "I can move beyond this experience and choose new directions for my life" or...
Reinvolvement: "I think I will rejoin the group."
Passing through these stages is seldom a smooth progression. It is fairly typical to bounce back and forth between different stages. Not everyone achieves the stage of accommodation / acceptance. Some return to cult life. But for those who do not, the following may be experienced for a period of several months:
flashbacks to cult life
simplistic black-white thinking
sense of unreality
suggestibility, i.e., automatic obedience responses to trigger-terms of the cult's loaded language or to innocent suggestions
disassociation (spacing out)
feeling "out of it"
"Stockholm Syndrome": knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
incapacity to make decisions
hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult or toward the cult itself
dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake
loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult
hangovers of habitual cult behaviors like chanting
difficulty managing time
trouble holding down a job
Most of these symptoms subside as the victim mainstreams into everyday routines of normal life. In a small number of cases, the symptoms continue.
This information is a composite list from the following sources: "Coming Out of Cults", by Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D. , Psychology Today, Jan. 1979, P. 75; "Destructive Cults, Mind Control and Psychological Coercion", Positive Action Portland, Oregon, and "Fact Sheet", Cult Hot-Line and Clinic, New York City.