This week's Therapeutic Thought is from Julia M. Reffner, who commented on my post Pick My Brain without Having to Write In ... "I would love to see something about cults and the lasting emotional effects on those who leave them."
One of the things to be aware of that might help when talking about cult involvement is how similar cultic abuse is to domestic abuse. Since I just finished up a series on domestic violence, that will already give you a head start into figuring out the lasting effects of abuse in general.
Just as an aside, a person doesn't set out to be in a repressive cult, just like no one decides, "Hey, I think I'll marry an abuser." It's not on someone's to-do list. But there are people who might be more susceptible to cults. According to psychologist Dr. Paul Martin, there are three types:
1) Seekers of God looking for a worthy cause or way to serve
2) Lonely or depressed who find a caring community in the group
3) Idolizers of the charisma of the leader or excitement of the movement
Post-Cult Trauma is characterized by a variety of symptoms, depending on the person and type cult they were involved with. Dr. Margaret Singer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, did extensive research with thousands of former cult members, and she observed intense depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, loneliness, inability to concentrate, confusion, sleep disorders, guilt, loss of identity, suicidal ideation, somatic complaints and over-dependence in a significant number of them. Some even had acute psychosis, meaning they were in need of serious psychiatric care.
As with anything ending that you have invested a part of yourself in, a person leaving (or being forced to exit) a cult will feel conflicting emotions. There are two sides to every coin. People can develop friendships and a sense of belonging in a cult, just as they can have a sense of purpose inherit in the group's mission or ideals. I'm not trying to glamorize a cult, but a person leaving a cult will experience grief over these losses...and that's normal and shouldn't be denied them.
Cults often entrench their members, many times resulting to brainwashing. Upon breaking away the cult, the person will find themselves isolated from others who understood the cult's brand of brainwash (for lack of better terms). They might still adhere to their cultish beliefs and be scared that they might lose their salvation, be cursed/condemned, incur God's wrath, or be susceptible to evil spirits now that they are no longer "protected" by the cult.
An interesting note is that cult members sometimes assume a pseudo-identity in a cult, perhaps taking on a different name or even personality. Occasionally, after exiting the cult, they might slip back into that pseudo-identity, a term called floating. I just ran across this in my research, so I'd google this if you want more information, but it's similar to dissociating.
On the other hand, some people who used to be in cults look at their breaking away as a freedom from oppression. They might have different symptoms, like guilt at what all they did in the cult when they were brainwashed, either to themselves or to someone else.
Other symptoms of post-cult trauma are: flashbacks to cult life--even including actual chanting, being triggered by cultic language used innocently by someone else, etc., simplistic black-white thinking, sexual conflicts, confusion about right v. wrong, spontaneous crying, difficulty holding down a job/managing time, panic disproportionate to one's circumstances, fear of going insane, dread of running into cult members by mistake, hostile reactions toward either the cult of criticizers of the cult, Stockholm Syndrome, and excessive rigidity about even minor rules.
These symptoms can last a couple of months for most people, and usually subside after being reintroduced to mainstream routines and everyday life outside the cult. In a small number of cases, symptoms continue...but I don't have a percentage for you. If you find one, drop me a comment.
Thanks for the question, Julia. It's not too late for you to get your question in if you've got one percolating!