The post-trauma after leaving a cult

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What you don’t know can hurt you

THE DISCOVERY that the group you joined in your search for the truth has deceived you, hurts! To realise that, perhaps for several years, you have been a member of a cultic or extreme Christian fringe group, when you thought it was the TRUE CHURCH, hurts!


IT IS NOT EASY to come out of cults or extreme Christian fringe groups. Leaders try, in may different ways, to keep their followers from questioning their authority or doubting their doctrines. Questions are avoided and evaded. Members are told to trust the leadership and accept that the leadership knows better, or has a more direct ’line’ to God. Members are told that the enemies of truth will spread malicious lies about the group and its leadership, they, of course, should not listen to the lies and gossip of such enemies.

WHEN members begin to note inconsistencies in teachings or the behaviour of leaders, they are encouraged to dismiss them as: lies, misunderstandings, exaggerations, an occasional human failing (after all, we are only human!!).

Leaders are ’allowed’ their ’little failures’ because, as God’s servants, they are under so much pressure. However, ordinary members are berated for their smallest failures, and are made to feel very guilty, even over trivial mistakes.

WHEN members seriously begin to question what they have believed, and what they see happening in the group, tremendous pressures are often put on them, pressures that can affect the whole family.

From the group’s leaders, and other members, they will often be made to feel judgmental, accused of ’sowing discord amongst the brethren’, of being troublemakers, apostates who have lost their faith in God. Often members of their own family can side with the group and its leaders, if the whole family has been in membership. They may even be accused of betraying the truth by their spouses or parents.


IT HURTS to realise that you have been deceived, that you have committed your life, for whatever length of time, to half-truths and error.

IT HURTS to realise that people’s niceness and sincerity are not enough. In fact, that hurt can be so deep that some people cannot face it for a long time. They don’t want to talk about it. They just want to put it behind them and forget all about it. Some repress it and pretend everything is all right, now that they have left. It is almost as if it has never really happened. But such an attitude leaves things unresolved and can cause greater hurt later in life.

IT HURTS to leave friends and support systems behind and start all over again. There is often a sense of betrayal and of disillusionment that causes suspicion of others, even old friends and fellow ex-cult members. There is a loss of trust in religious leaders and groups. This often leaves the person in confusion and loneliness.

IT HURTS to find that feelings of guilt, shame and depression become part of the uncertainty of life after leaving a cult. Without leaders to direct thought and action, without the controlled direction of the group, even simple decisions seem difficult and ex-members often find it hard to be decisive. They have been used to having their lives structured by the group and now have to make their own decisions. While in membership with the group most of the time was occupied with group activities. From attending meetings to recruiting others to listening to tapes by the group’s leaders - there is often a constant involvement with the group. Once out of the group, there is uncertainty about how to use one’s time. There is often also unease and guilt about spending time on leisure or personal enjoyment.

IT HURTS to find yourself ’floating’, daydreaming, being in a trance like condition where you seem, temporarily, to lose touch with what is happening around you. Such an experience can be very disturbing to the ex-cult member. So can moments of wistful longing to be back in the security of the group. These feelings will occur - as will feelings of uncertainty about having done the right thing. This is especially so when the group continues on as if everything is going wonderfully for those who remain, while the ex-member struggles with many mixed emotions and with some complex readjustments to life.

IT HURTS thinking you are the only person going through such an experience, and being uncertain of where to turn for understanding and help. The hurt is made worse by people who make you feel that there was or is, something wrong with you because you were once the member of a cult or extreme Christian fringe group.

IT HURTS if, when you pray or read the Bible, you are not sure if you are praying and understanding the Bible as a Christian, or as a cultist. It hurts to lose your self-esteem and confidence because of your involvement with a cult, and to feel that others are constantly observing you and judging you.

IT HURTS to look for employment and discover that the moment you explain that your past employment or involvement, was with a cultic group, then no one wants to employ you.

IT HURTS to face friends and family who had been opposed to your involvement with a particular group, and who say: WE TOLD YOU SO! when you become disillusioned and leave the group.

WHEN YOU LEAVE a cult, or extreme Christian fringe group, you go through a grief process.

Relationships and trust have died. The severing of former ties and relationships are not just physical. The ex-member is affected spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

Normally with a death there is a funeral, an opportunity of voicing a last farewell, and then there is a burial. But when a person leaves a cult, the death of relationships is real, but there is no funeral and no burial.

The cult usually continues. This makes the grief process all the harder to handle.

It is no sin to grieve. It is no sin to feel disillusioned, confused, uncertain about the past or the future because of past cult involvement. It is no sin to suffer the loss of trust in church groups and leaders as a result of such negative experiences, it is no sin to feel uncertain and unsettled about a new church home, and wander from one church to another for some time.

God does not condemn you for those feelings. He understands!

The message of Jesus Christ is one of understanding, love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The hurts that have been mentioned are very real for many, and perhaps for you. Part of the grief process is avoidance. It IS painful to have gone through these experiences but they must be faced and dealt with. Pretending it never happened to you can be far more damaging, in the long run, than the present pain of working through these hurts.

Acknowledge your own fears, pride, anger, and other emotions and bring them before Jesus Christ. Take encouragement from His willingness to share your burdens (Matthew 11:28-30). Accept the reality of God’s forgiveness after you have confessed your involvement in the group and your subsequent feelings (1 John 1:5-9)

Put your faith in Jesus Christ, rather than in any one group or it’s leaders. Look for a fellowship of people where you can learn and grow, worship and serve God as you desire. This won’t be easy. Every time you go to a Church group you’ll be tempted to compare it with the group you left, and it will be different (and so it should be).

You will initially find it difficult to settle down with another group. Realise this, and be persistent. Don’t give up. Study the Bible (probably it will help you to use a different version to what you used in the group you left). Visit Christian bookshops and buy Bible study booklets, Bible aids, books on Christian living. Examine different views and perspectives that go beyond the narrow limits of your previous experience. This may feel threatening or make you uncomfortable, but persist. You will grow as a result and develop your own freedom for thinking for yourself.

Try and find a good Bible study group where you can participate. Don’t think that others in the group know everything and therefore be too embarrassed to ask questions. Your questions, contribution, and discussion can be of help to others.

All this is essential to your growth and readjustment. If you don’t persist in these areas and fail to grow, with enough confidence to think for yourself then you may have left a cultic or extreme fringe group but not really come out of it.

Leaving is walking away from the group but taking the baggage of its teachings and practices with you (often without being aware of it).

Coming out of such groups involves coming to grips with the reality of distortion, deception and manipulation. In other words, thinking (and/or talking) it through so you know why you should have left, and why it was right that you did leave.

The road ahead will seem long and tiring at times. You will have times of discouragement and uncertainty, but keep on going.

THOSE COMING OUT OF THE CULTS need a great deal of love, understanding, patience and encouragement. There are no quick, instant cures or deliverances, to overcome the trauma and grief of dealing with past cult involvement.

CHRISTIANS, of all people should be able to provide that supportive love, patience and understanding counsel that provides encouragement for the ex-cult member to face that past commitment and find peace through handing it over to God.

When men fail, and human nature indicates that they will, don’t give everything up. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ. He won’t let you down. He is patient and understanding - He has kept you safe and sane in spite of that cultic involvement. And He will see you through.