High Demand Group or Cult Education & Recovery

High Demand Group or Cult Education and Recovery -- Consultations, Therapy, Workshops, Loved Ones Affected, Mental Health Professionals

 What is a High Demand/High Control Group or Cult?

First, a word of caution. Anyone (former members, family members of someone currently involved, professionals specializing in the field of high demand/high control group or cult education and recovery, etc.) can become a target of attack with false accusations, harassment, and threats by current members of such groups. Members in healthy groups, including families, can respectfully disagree and express different perspectives; feel "heard" and understood, have flexibility to make changes based on feedback, work collaboratively together, and maintain healthy boundaries of "I" and "you" rather than a standard "we." In well-functioning groups, members are also supported to pursue individual goals. When members choose, they can move on, "graduate," or, when of age, "launch out" to begin a life of one's own. In unhealthy groups, families, or cults, "launching out" can be viewed as abandonment and betrayal, and "graduation" is a concept that simply doesn't exist rather than a healthy avenue to further personal goals and choices. 

Parallels can exist with dysfunctional and abusive relational patterns in families, partnerships, cults, high demand/high control groups and relationships including domestic abuse. Partners and corrupt group leaders with narcissistic and/or antisocial traits need children/partners/members to comply with their demands and maintain regressive dependence for the dominant partner's/leader's personal needs and gains. This could be to fortify the dominant partner's sense of superiority, control, and prestige, while covering his underlying low sense of self-worth and interpersonal deficits. With high demand group leaders, control and money are primary regardless of personal rights, self-autonomy, and the well-being of members. Corrupt leaders create harmful systems in which the end justifies the means.

Although the focus of this section is primarily related to high demand groups, some readers may find similar family of origin and couple dynamics and patterns.

Dominant/Subordinate Unequal and Abusive Power Relationship

In his book "Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation" (2014) Dan Shaw writes:

"The traumatizing narcissist recruits others -- her child, spouse, sibling, friend, patient, and so on -- into a relationship that seductively offers the promise of the bestowal of special gifts -- love, prestige, power, adoration. However, the traumatizing narcissist will soon find cause to accuse the other of insufficient concern and of selfishness. The other will then come to be ashamed of and disconnected from his own needs, other than his need to stave off disapproval from and rejection by the traumatizing narcissist. Most crucially the traumatizing narcissist's goal is to corrupt and debilitate the subjectivity of the other -- a form of dehumanization that is the very essence of traumatic abuse."

To a lesser or greater degree, any challenge to the leader's/dominant partner's, or group's rules, ideology, and established norms is not tolerated and considered a threat to control. In such cases, members/subordinate partners have learned to conform to the leader for their self-protection and to belong. Leaders use of "black/white", "good/bad", "all/nothing" thinking undermines critical thinking and creates a culture in which members/subordinate partners change their own thinking patterns to maintain connection with the leader/dominant partner. With continued coercive influence and control, increased dependency on the leader/dominant other, and strong social reinforcing pressure, members convince themselves that what the leader(s) states is "right" and necessary for her survival. Members begin to discount their own instincts and perceptions. If a member/partner questions the established authority, something is wrong with the member and a scapegoating process can begin. ("It's all your fault...You're the problem!"). 

Coercive Control and Influence exists in High Demand/High Control groups, cults, and relationships. Systems such as these involve a strategic pattern of control, manipulation, and exploitation in abuser-centered relational systems such as partnerships, marriages, teacher-student, therapist-patient, family, groups, corporations, movements (political, spiritual, religious, or otherwise), sex and labor trafficking.

Definitions of High Demand Groups and Relationships

Although there is no agreed-upon definition of a high demand/ high control group, cult, or abusive relationship, several seem to highlight key elements:

"An ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment. Charisma refers to a spiritual power or personal quality that gives leaders considerable influence or authority over large numbers of people. Hence, a high demand group or cult is characterized by an ideology, strong demands issuing from that ideology, and powerful processes of social-psychological influence to induce group members to meet those demands. This high-demand, leader-centered social climate places such groups at risk of exploiting and injuring members, although they may remain benign, if leadership doesn't abuse its power.” (Zablocki, http://www.icsahome.com/infoserv_icsa/icsa_overview.htm Retrieved July 28, 2007).

"A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing while employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986)

"Domestic violence is a pattern of deliberate behavior to maintain power and control over one's partner. In an abusive relationship, the level of violence tends to increase in frequency and severity over time." (Center for Domestic Peace, Domestic Violence Facts Sheet, 2013/2014).

From a sociological perspective, Janja Lalich, PhD, defines a cult in her book, "Bounded Choice, True Believers and Charismatic Cults", (2004): “A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.” These relational systems are "comprised of a charismatic relationship, a promise of fulfillment, and a methodology by which to achieve it." (Lalich)

Recommended Reading:

"Take Back Your Life, Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships." Lalich and Tobias, 2006

How Did I Become Involved in This Specialty?

Four years after my mother's death when I was 15, I was recruited into a group I now identify as a high demand group that I was actively involved in for seven years in my young adulthood. As I began my clinical practice I worked with clients affected by such groups and relationships, including clergy and domestic abuse. With researching the field and with my clinical and personal experience, I recognized that as a population, former members of high demand groups or cults need knowledgeable professional support that is, unfortunately, not easy to find. I continue to deepen my knowledge of cult, high demand/high control group recovery and abusive relational systems and I'm grateful for what I learn from clients and other contributors to the field.

Psychologically and Physically Leaving a High Demand or High Control Group

When members become disillusioned and begin to recognize the harm the group and leader have on their individual lives, the psychological and physical process of leaving begins, sometimes initially without conscious awareness. Step by step, former members connect with the world outside the cult through activities and relationships. The psychological process of leaving involves deep personal courage, motivation, and disconfirmation of inaccurate, self-limiting, internalized beliefs formed from the ideology of the high demand group leader and experiences within the cult or relationship. These deeply-held inaccurate internalized beliefs are felt on a cognitive, emotional, somatic level. They are often accompanied by deep feelings of fear and guilt should one question the dictates of the leader, pursue one's individual goals, and create a life of one's own making. Gaining insight, having "corrective emotional experiences" with better outcomes than in the past, and disconfiming these self-limiting beliefs and patterns allows a person to live a fulfilling life. In post cult or high demand group life, some may become activists in the field and others may quietly rebuild their lives. Recovery is a step by step, individual process.

Continuum of Influence and Harm

All groups (and relationships) exist on a continuum of influence and control with varying degrees of harmful or beneficial characteristics. High demand/High Control groups or cults share structure and dynamics that can form in any group or relationship, including in families. The late psychiatrist Arthur Deikman noted in his book, "Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat" (1990, 1994, 2003) that the question to pose is not, "Is this or that group a cult," but "How much cult thinking is taking place?" Deikman identifies these characteristics of cult thinking:

1) Compliance with the group; 2) dependence on the leader; 3) avoiding dissent; 4) devaluing the outsider.

High demand groups are neither "all good" or "all bad"; rather, they share a systems perspective of the dynamics and structure of a group that is "comprised of a charismatic relationship, a promise of fulfillment, and a methodology by which to achieve it." (Lalich, 2004). At some point in a former member's life, she may acknowledge unexpected gains from the high demand group.

Totalistic, Extreme, Separatist Groups

High demand groups have been simply defined as social environments that are relationally and ideologically extreme. They are frequently totalistic when they are exclusive in their ideology ("sacred science", "the only way") and members are coercively influenced through systems of psychosocial control. Some cults are separatist when they promote withdrawal from the larger society.

Education for Ourselves and Our Loved Ones

Primary to recovery and future avoidance of cult or abusive relationships is education! We can be aware of cult thinking in groups or movements which discourage critical thinking, and self-determination while promoting dependency on the group and leader(s) . Cults can ensnare us with promises of quick and easy answers to life's complexities. "Eastern", "Religious", "Political", "Terrorist", "New Age", "Psychotherapy", "Philosophical", "Large Group Awareness Training", "Commercial"/ "Multi-Marketing" , "One-on-One", and "Family" are types of groups and relationships that can have cult features. These defining characteristics exist with varying degrees of influence and harm.


Cults are never what they appear to be, and members generally don't set out to join one. A cult or high-demand group can be defined as an authoritarian group or relationship in which the leader or dominant partner describes him/herself as having "special" attributes, often of a "divine" nature. The leader uses systematic methods of coercive persuasion and/or manipulation to recruit and control those in subordinate roles. He uses rewards for remaining loyal, such as "initiations", increased status within the group, secret privileges, or other "special" enticements; and fear and intimidation tactics to foster long-term dependency.

We may seek the altruistic life which a certain leader or group promises, but in reality be deceived by an absolutist dogma. Not only are cult members lives altered by cult recruitment and indoctrination, families are too. Partners or parents of an adult member can often become deeply distressed to discover that the person they knew before the cult is changed in essential ways. Heartbreaking and often devastating to loved ones, cult members may alter or cut off relationships with families, friends, and, in some cases, spouses. Members can be exploited and manipulated by corrupt leaders to serve the leaders' needs (money and power). . "True believers," can become deployable agents, taking on qualities of the narcissistic and/or sociopathic leader(s), behaving in ways he wouldn't ordinarily.

Children in High Demand Groups

Children are the most vulnerable and dependent members of such groups, raised in families with parents who may abdicate parental responsibilities, conforming to the dictates of the leader. Children raised in high demand groups or cults are pressured to behave, believe, and become -- as were their parents at the time of recruitment and indoctrination. Children may may suffer physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect, in some cases believe that such abuse is "God's way." They may receive poor medical care or education. Boundaries of families in cults (like cults, themselves) are merged with little tolerance of differences and inadequate protection of the child's needs and age-appropriate personal rights. Children grow up with internalized belief systems (from parents and cult) that fail to adequately support or deliberately limit their developing sense of self . Harmful demands can obstruct healthy, developmental goals, and leave them largely unprepared for mainstream society they have been indoctrinated to distust.

Some observational and self-report studies find that some of those born and/or raised in cults or high-demand groups face particular challenges when they leave related to self-identity, finding their "voice" and place in the world. On a practical level, some need to obtain an education and job skills. Without role-modeling and encouragement, children may be unaccustomed to using their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Similar to those raised in significantly dysfunctional families of origin, children may need to learn how to effectively communicate, create healthy boundaries, know their personal rights, connect with parts of themselves and heal from trauma due to on-going abuse, neglect, and insufficient "good enough" parenting.

As the leader's needs take priority in cults, former members may need to disconfirm inaccurate beliefs that taking care of themselves, developing their talents, and even relaxing are not "selfish" or "bad". Children raised in cults or high demand groups may have post traumatic stress symptoms, depression and/or anxiety. Many may be in the process of catching up with some developmental tasks in their post-cult lives. With each success, and with recognizing and developing their strengths, those raised in cults take steps in their process of recovery, gain trust in themselves and their ability to not only survive, but thrive outside the cult in a world of their own making.

Cultic Thinking

Cultic thinking inhibits our self-expression, spontaneity, creativity, and perverts our understanding of trusting, intimate relationships. Cultic thinking encourages inflated views of self and devaluation of others, even though paradoxically we may show little self-compassion and acceptance, modeled from how the leader treats members. In other words, cultic thinking prevents us from fully accepting ourselves and understanding the words of Harry Stack Sullivan, MD: "We are all more simply human than otherwise.”

The Group With Which One Identifies

Social scientists claim that the group with which one identifies, not one's personality, determines behavior. With pressure from the group and leader, a "true believer's" basic beliefs change without conscious awareness of this process of thought reform. As dependency to the leader and conformity to the group increases, a member may find himself acting against his basic values and internalizing the values, beliefs, and goals of the cult leader(s). Even independent thought may become dangerous based on the threats of cult members and the leader(s).

More About High Demand Groups

Generally, these groups market themselves as providing all the answers or “keys” to life's problems. They often make false claims that their techniques are scientifically-based and proven to succeed, using such terms as "sacred science." Cults promise the "right", "best", "only", "most direct way" to unlock the secrets of the universe while promoting formulas for quick personal success and happiness. Leaders persuade members that they are the “chosen ones” with greater awareness or consciousness than any other. Over time, dependency on the leader and group increases while trust in self erodes.

In signing on, members aren’t provided with adequate information to make fully informed decisions about what cults generally expect, including life-long memberships, giving up educational or professional goals, and making routine donations. These deceptive practices involve more and more demands made upon members’ time and loyalty to the leader and group, which, in turn, frequently disrupts relationships with family, friends, and associates outside the group. Over time, overt and covert threats are made and inaccurate beliefs develop about leaving the cult. This may include the fear of financial ruin, losing all “spiritual” gains, even death! As members become more involved with the group, critical thinking is systematically discouraged and usually prohibited, although the leader often claims otherwise. Bit by bit a person's self-identity changes. If members and/or outsiders ask critical questions regarding the leader's credentials, practice, or ideology, the blame is placed on those who question; they are "wrong," “evil” , or unable to see "the truth".

What are Common Experiences of Former Members Who Leave a Cult or High-Demand Group?

Most cult members leave or become inactive on their own, dissatisfied, disillusioned or devastated by their experience. Former members, including those born and/or raised in cults or high-demand groups leave to pursue normal developmental goals. Many former members confront major challenges in re-connecting or connecting with society at large. In addition to having the courage and self-initiative to leave, former members have reported a wide range of experience, including feelings of relief, excitment, fear, hope, confusion, anxiety, depression, pleasure, happiness, guilt, self-loathing, sadness, curiosity and loneliness. According to my observation, at some point on their post-cult lives, former members are often angry at the cult leader for deceiving them and wasting years of their lives. Even as former members recognize the harmful consequences of cults, they also may report some beneficial gains especially if they acted with good intentions.

Some former members who come to my office for professional help frequently report symptoms of post traumatic stress, complex post traumatic stress, major depression, generalized anxiety, mixed depression and anxiety, and dissociation. These symptoms may have developed from family of origin, cult, and other experiences. Some may not be as affected and move on more easily to reestablish their lives. Many describe difficulties in having an accurate perception of themselves and others, having internalized self-limiting beliefs of the cult leader that they are in the process of disconfirming. Other challenges that clients have reported include trusting themselves and having healthy self-confidence, making decisions, tolerating stress, feeling safe in relationships, connecting with their feelings and thoughts, gaining self-acceptance and relief from harsh self-criticism, changing internalized patterns of "magical thinking" of "cosmic punishment" that make day to day life much more difficult to manage.

Certain "triggers" (words, incense, music, situations) may evoke painful or conflicting feelings, thoughts, images, etc. related to the cult and oneself. Former members may have periods of “spacing out” or dissociating, some of which may arise from such practices as chanting, meditating, listening to the hypnotic voice and "loaded language" of the leader, focusing on a split between emotional states, thoughts, and, in some cases, what the cult considers "spiritual" ("good") or mental ("bad").

Psychoeducation about cults or high demand groups, from online resources, reading books and articles, as well as individual or group therapy with a qualified, competent psychotherapist who is knowledgeable in cults or high-demand groups is a recommended course to recovery. Participants in the Cult Recovery Support Group I facilitate often report that the healthy group environment helps them deepen their understanding of themselves and their experience, gain support in pursuing individual goals, learn helpful coping skills, develop self-confidence and self-acceptance. With others who understand, participants may learn from each other and recognize that they're not alone, and that their experience "makes sense" given their history. The group facilitates healing from and integration of the cult experience in one's current life. Those in individual therapy often report relief at feeling understood, heard, and having their experiences and themselves validated. I've observed that most former members appreciate knowing others have been through similiar experience as they become better educated about their "normal" responses to a harmful group or relationship. They often report gaining hope and courage in taking back their lives and finding fulfillment and joy.

Loss and Grief from Harmful Groups and Relationships

Using Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' phases of loss and grief as a guide, I have observed that former members may have the following experiences when they leave a cult:

1)Shock and disbelief, sometimes what is called "emotional numbing". This includes the realization that what was once considered "truth" is deception, self-limiting, and/or causing harm.

2)Anger about what some have called "spiritual rape", manipulation, deception and betrayal as well as how many years, money, time and other sacrifices one has made.

3)Bargaining, such as “What if...I could have done such and such" to avoid becoming entrapped or exploited by the leader(s) .

4)Depression, feeling a lack of pleasure in activities which were previously pleasurable, irritability, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, feelings of sadness, and changes in eating or sleeping.

5)Denial in that "I'm not affected significantly by the cult;" or "I'm over it!" without education, self-reflection, necessary changes, and/or professional support.

6)Acceptance which may mean something like "I understand the experience I had in the cult and how it affects me...I've made changes to accommodate who I am today."
With genuine acceptance, one can understand the complexities involved in one’s cult experience, including beneficial and harmful aspects.

The above stages of loss do not necessarily occur sequentially. Rather, strong feelings come in waves, becoming less intense in time, while each person’s experience is unique. There is not a "right" or "wrong" way to grieve.

Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress

Because high demand group members may experience traumas and abuse (although abusive actions may be called otherwise according to leaders) , they may develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The three hallmark classes of post-traumatic stress symptoms are re-experiencing traumatic experience (e.g., flashbacks or intrusive thoughts); avoidance or numbing symptoms (e.g., avoiding reminders of the trauma); and arousal symptoms (e.g. difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability; hypervigilence; difficulties concentrating).

Individual and Group Sessions

In individual or group sessions I have found the following to be helpful to former cult members recovery in reclaiming their lives: increasing education about cults or high-demand groups; gaining trust in self and discerning trust in others; developing critical thinking skills; accepting anger and other feelings, including ambivalent feelings; learning how to regulate emotions; developing healthy coping skills including effective communication; understanding healthy boundaries and setting personal limits; knowing personal rights; developing one's innate skills and talents; accepting one's “humanness”; and disconfirming inaccurate, self-limiting beliefs internalized through thought reform and/or in families of origin.

In having the privilege of working with former cult members, I have witnessed how they not only heal but thrive, using their intelligence, courage, humor, motivation, self-honesty, resiliency and other strong survival traits to obtain more joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

Former members, family members, and others affected by cults or high-demand groups may schedule individual, couple, family sessions or consultations, in office or through phone. Former members may participate in the support group in conjunction with individual sessions as needed.

A Group for Former High Demand Group Members is offered every other Saturday from 3:00 to 5:00 PM in my Marin office in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've facilitated this successful group since 2003 in my Mill Valley office prior to relocating in 2012. This is a safe psychodynamic, educational, and exploratory group . Participants are former members of high demand, controversial groups including spritually abusive groups and clergy abuse, and those born and/or raised in them (Second Generation Adults). In a safe, non-authoritarian group environment, participants address relevant issues in their lives, current and past. They generally give feedback that they feel relieved to know they're not alone in many of their experiences and that they value support and insight from others. In this healthy group, participants can maintain autonomy and connection. They can authentially express themselves without scapegoating or blame, deepen understanding of their subjective and objective experience, test healthier ways of relating to others, celebrate successes, and gain help with challenges. Participants can become more informed of the dynamics, structure, and influence of abusive groups and leaders and take steps in healing from the damaging or traumatic consequences of such groups or relationship. A healthy group can be a powerful aid to recovery and change, respectful of one's own pace and choices to pursue individual goals.

Workshops and Consultations

Online Educational Workshops with Janja Lalich, PhD, and Colleen, LMFT, begins in March, 2020! See Menu for more information!

Behave, Believe, Become -- Or Not! Online Educational/Interactive Workshop for former members of high demand groups, including those born and raised, current or past partners of those currently involved.  A new and successful venture to reach people outside Marin County! Topics discussed include recruitment and indoctrination, characteristics of "cookie-cutter messiahs", healing from trauma and losses, post-traumatic growth and post-loss growth, connecting to self and one's feelings, critical thinking, healhy and unhealthy relationships, domestic abuse systems and cult abuse parallels, taking back one's life, connecting to society-at-large. If interested, one or two individual consultations OR previous individual or group work with me are required prior to participation.

Family members, partners (current or past), and friends of someone currently in a high demand group can consult with me individually and/or participate in one of the workshops I facilitate. Call to be on the waiting list or for further information.

I also provide consultations to mental health professionals.

© 2008-2018 Colleen Russell, LMFT, CGP, All Rights Reserved

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