The following characteristics of a cult apply to destructive cults, those where there is mind control, or brain washing, going on.
If you are checking this information out because you think you might be in a cult, it's important to understand that you may read some of the items and think that they are not applicable to your group. This is because the thinking of cult members has been manipulated in such a way that it is difficult for them to see anything wrong with their group.
A useful exercise in this case is to ask a trusted friend or family member, who is not in the group, to go through this list of characteristics of a cult with you. Very often they will be able to see things that you cannot. For example, cult members may have been led to believe that listening to audio recordings while they sleep is an excellent way to learn. They don't see that it is actually a form of indoctrination into the group's belief system. The reason for the activity has been set up by the cult leader. This type of redefinition is very common in destructive cults.
So let's have a look at the characteristics of a cult.
The leader is typically a charismatic character who seems worldly wise and the members believe he is kind, helpful, caring, attentive and they will tell you that he is helping them tremendously.
The leader decides everything about the group. How it is run, who does what, the rules and regulations, the ideas of the group, when things change, all these things are chosen by the leader to suit himself (or herself!). They answer to no-one. Irrespective of any 'governing body' in place, the leader has the final say in everything.
The cult leader often has a past history of a difficult childhood or they have had severe problems at some point. There is typically a story of how they overcome these hurdles although this story usually changes over time. There is a 'trick' or technique or a method of some kind that the leader found or developed themselves and this is the basis of his teachings. He or she is now prepared to share this technique with the world. Sometimes this 'trick' involves having had an encounter with God and now God wants to spread his message through this particular person.
The cult leaders make out that their trick is unique, special and the best of it's kind. The scarcity principle is heavily used here. They claim that their way is the only real way or that they have the Truth, with a capital T. They will be very critical of their competitors.
The leader presents himself as the ideal role model for the members. He can use his trick perfectly and as a result his life is idyllic, successful, exactly how a life should be. The members are led to believe that if their lives were like that of the leader they would have everything they desire.
Cult leaders are professional liars.
They often have a vicious temper that is kept hidden from new members and only revealed to older, more senior members when these people are committed to the group/leader.
The leaders have one set of rules for themselves and another set for the members. They are allowed to do things that the members cannot. They twist and distort things to justify their rules. (I am allowed to do it because I want to teach you something, or God said I was to do it.)
The leader claims to be right all the time. If there are any problems it is the fault of the members.
The leader has an answer for everything. He or she is rarely stuck for words. Even if the answer contradicts something the leader said before, it's still correct.
Many leaders fit the profile of a psychopath. They are manipulative, good actors, take advantage of others, and are not actually bothered by doing damage to others, no matter how severe. You can read about the psychopathic characteristics of cult leaders here.
The leaders use destructive mind control techniques to manipulate and dominate the members.
Members join because of an interest in what the group is offering but this is very quickly changed to adoration of the leader.
They are not stupid, gullible, weak individuals with past histories of mental problems. Cults want healthy, intelligent, energetic individuals as members because they will more easily attract other people and they generate more revenue.
Everyone is vulnerable to being recruited into a cult.
People do not go out and join a cult. They sign up to a sales course, a relationships seminar, or a fitness program and so on. In other words, they are deceived into becoming members of a cult.
The members are led to believe that the 'work' of the group is the most important thing in their lives. They end up eating, breathing and sleeping the ideas of the group. They use the ideas in their work lives, in their personal lives and in their social lives.
The new people feel really great, almost euphoric, initially, and this propels them to want to let other people know about the group so that they, too, can feel equally good. They don't realize that they have been set up to do this and it's actually called 'recruiting new members into the cult'.
Cult members are not aware of the extent of the changes they have undergone in terms of their beliefs, thinking and behaviors.
They are 100% certain that they are free, independent and making their own decisions. They will even get angry and argumentative if they are told that they are not actually making their own decisions.
The members are controlled using a lot of emotional manipulation, especially fear and guilt. However, the members are often not aware of the amount of fear that is used against them until after they have left the group.
The members are taught how to deal with outsider's objections. They are often given stock answers to the most common criticisms of the group. This is why they often sound like they are just parroting what they have heard within the group. The members believe that they are learning ways to introduce the ideas to others, another example of redefinition within cults.
Members often have phobias of leaving the group. They think they won't be able to manage outside. Some even believe that they would die if they left. They may not even be able to visualize a future without using the groups ideas. The general thought is 'If I am not doing the 'work' of the group, what else is there?' Anything else pales in comparison to working for the goals of the group. These phobias need to be dealt with as quickly as possible when someone leaves, or is trying to leave, a destructive group.
That phobia also means that the threat of being thrown out is a very powerful thing for members. You may have heard stories of people and families being expelled and the first thing they do is try to get back into the good graces of the leader so that they are allowed back in. The leader's threatening a member with expulsion becomes a very powerful motivator for the member to do whatever he needs to in order to be allowed to stay.
Cult members will usually be distanced from their family and friends. Members are told "Your family doesn't understand what we are doing, they are holding you back, they don't know what's best for you" and so on. The tactic means that the cult members give less importance to anything their family says, especially when they are criticizing the group.
Members are typically not paid very well for their work within the group. In fact, many groups have people working long hours, often without payment at all. They are told it's an honor to work and further the cause of the group and that becomes their payment.
In many groups the members have even their sex lives controlled by the leader. Enforced celibacy to group sex and prostitution and everything in between occurs in many cults. The members may desire a sexual relationship with the leader and are often programmed to do so. However, remember that the members are making decisions without having available to them all the information about what is being done to them. This makes all their decisions uninformed decisions. For this reason a sexual relationship with a cult leader is considered sexual abuse and needs to be treated as such.
Members are kept on an emotional roller-coaster. They are praised for doing good 'work' and punished, often severely, for breaking the rules. Sometimes they are made to feel good and at other times they are made to feel afraid, ashamed, guilty etc. for any number of reasons. These emotional highs and lows severely hampers the members ability to think logically and rationally.
The ideas and beliefs, the rules and regulations of a cult supposedly cover everything. They have a solution for all of life's problems. Many of these solutions come in generalized statements such as 'Put yourself in your happy state' or 'Pray about it' or 'meditate on it' or 'Do more of the exercises you have learnt here'.
The doctrine contains a lot of black and white thinking, i.e., this or that with nothing in between. Cult members are good, outsiders are defective in some way, stupid, sinners, ignorant, unenlightened, asleep. The leader is always right, never wrong. Certain behaviors are demanded, others are never allowed. There is never any overlap.
The doctrine replaces the previous belief system of the members. The ideas are trained into the members using a punishment and reward system.
The doctrine contains an idea about improving the world in some way. "If only everyone knew these things, the world would be such a better place!" The fact is that the members are having so little impact on the world that most people in the town where the cult is haven't even heard of it! Any criticism of the doctrine is often met with 'Don't you want the world to be a better place?' It's hard to argue with that (especially when it might mean expulsion from the group!)
The end justifies the means. Because of the goal to transform the world, the leaders will push people to do all sorts of things in the name of benefiting the world. Members are pushed to lie, cheat, steal, con and deceive, because, after all, it's for the greater good.
Over time, the doctrine of the cult becomes the master program that runs the members lives. If they have any doubts or hesitations they refer to the 'teachings' to know what to do. This can take the form of 'what would the leader do, or what would the leader tell me to do?'
Leaders use the power of the group in various ways. People may be allowed to repeat programs and seminars they have done previously at a reduced cost. They then become the models for the newbies. Any new person who has any doubts when a weird idea is introduced or the participants are expected to do strange exercises looks around the room to see what others are doing. The senior members are acting as if all is normal and acceptable. This very heavily influences the newbie to 'join in and have a go'.
Anyone who asks difficult questions in the group is given a very hard time by the leader. This teaches the 'difficult' student not to be so critical. It also sets an example for others who may have had similar questions or doubts. The know that if they ask, they will get the same treatment. Better to keep quiet and continue listening.
The identity of the members becomes blurred with that of the group. One of the ways this is done is by public confessions. In religious groups that is done as a ritual, where people stand up and admit to their sins in public. In other groups the members are tricked into it. People may take turns in talking about how horrible their past was, until they found the group, and everything changed. In personal development groups people talk about a problem they have and apply the technique they are learning to that problem. These exercises have people revealing intimate details of their lives, often to complete strangers, something they might never do if they met a stranger in a coffee shop, for example. The members get used to revealing their personal details in the group and eventually the group (and the leader!) knows so much about them that the identity boundaries begin to blur. This is very dangerous!
One of the effects is that the members begin to monitor other members activities to make sure the rules are not broken. If a member sees another doing something that is potentially damaging to the group, it feels like a personal attack and the observer feels a strong need to do something to remedy the situation, either reprimanding the rule breaker or reporting it to the leadership.
While the leader says everyone is equal, he or she sets up competition between the members. People who grow the group or earn a lot of money are publicly praised, which motivates others to do similar things so that they, too, can earn the public praise of the leader.
While there may be a hierarchy in the group, with older members who contribute more ascending to positions of importance, that hierarchy is very fragile and a member can lose their privileges in an instant if they are caught breaking the rules.
The group is set up to lead members through a process. This process includes recruiting new people, indoctrinating them into the ideas and beliefs of the group and then getting them to do the work of the group, which is basically recruiting new members and taking their money! All this is done within the framework of the outer façade of the group, whether that's religious, health, sports or whatever. The member has the cult personality very deliberately imposed on them during this process.
A cult member's beliefs, ideas, world view, thought processes, decision making, emotions and behaviors are all altered on being recruited into the group. All this is done very intentionally by the cult leader. All these changes add up to a change in personality for the cult members. This pseudopersonality, or false personality, is programmed in various ways for the benefit of the leader. It thinks, decides and acts the way the leader wants it to. Each member has the same programming and this is why all the cult members seem so similar.
The pseudopersonality is programmed to believe the leader over everybody else and to follow the instructions of the leader, even if these are transmitted as wishes or desires to the members. This has obvious advantages for the leader!
The pseudopersonality is programmed to take care of the group and the leader before itself.
The pseudopersonality is designed to be very dependent on the group and the leader. It doesn't make decisions unless they are approved by the leader. It will check with the group or the leader if it is not sure about something. This may sound a bit far-fetched but this is what happens as a result of the destructive mind control used in cults.
The thinking of the pseudopersonality is very distorted. It will not be able to recognize the contradictions of the cult. It will not be able to see anything wrong with the leader saying one thing and doing another. It will have justifications for the leader doing all sorts of nasty things.
The pseudopersonality believes that it is growing, developing, learning new things. It believes that it's world is expanding and that it is understanding more and more about the how the world works. The reason for this is that the pseudopersonality is getting stronger over time and the stronger it gets the more the leader's ideas make sense. The reality is that the members world is getting smaller and smaller. Their only interest is in things that have to do with the groups ideas. Anything else is considered so much less important as to be uninteresting or even boring.
The pseudopersonality does not look after itself very well. Medical and dental visits often drop off, the pseudopersonality learns to 'live with less' so that there is more time and money to spend on cult-related things.
The pseudopersonality is put in place with very strong influence techniques and it is reinforced over time. The member believes that it was their own idea to adopt the new beliefs and behaviors. These two factors mean that when a member leaves the group, the pseudopersonality does not simply disappear on it's own. It persists. It will persist for decades (unless it is intentionally undone). This causes immense problems for the ex-member, not least of which it leaves them very vulnerable to being recruited into another cult or being caught in an abusive relationship.
Some of these characteristics of a cult you will recognize, others you will not. That doesn’t mean they were not a part of your group, it just means that you cannot see them right now. Remember that if you are concerned, it's a good idea to ask a trusted friend for help. (It's best not to assume that you should be able to sort all this out on your own. That, too, is part of the programming of the pseudopersonality!)
If you do recognize lot of the characteristics of a cult in your group, you need to do something about it. You need to leave, you need to learn about what was done to you and you need to get rid of that pseudopersonality.
These things are much easier with the help of an expert in cults, mind control and psychopathy. It will speed up your recovery as well as help you avoid the pitfalls and reduce your stress and suffering.
There is more information here about the recruitment process, methods used to create the pseudopersonality, more details about the pseudopersonality, how to escape a cult, and healing from emotional abuse.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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