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Cult groups come in all 'shapes and sizes' and it is a common misconception that cults are only religious.  They can also be psychotherapy groups, multi-level marketing companies, science fiction groups, political/social movements, psychic or occult groups, eastern mystical movements, etc.  


Often they do not fit into neat boxes and some fit into multiple categories.  However, it is common to see similar behaviour and practices throughout each group, in varying degrees of intensity.  For example, I was in a charismatic bible-based cult and I observed many behaviours and practices which were similar to those reported by ex NXIVM members, a non-religious multilevel marketing/self-improvement cult in America.​


Use this list, retrieved from the International Cultic Studies Association website, to help you asses the group you, or your family member, has been involved with.  Keep in mind, the group may not display all characteristics, this is just a guide.


  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether they are alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

  • The group is preoccupied with making money.

  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.


(Langone, M, 2015)

Identifying abusive cults


Leaving a cult can be traumatic.  After being involved with a group (or relationship) that has dominated so much of your life and identity, it can be difficult to step back and people often feel they are left with a huge void in their lives. Some members even develop Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of their experiences in an abusive group and the International Cultic Studies Association reports that ex-members often feel...

  • A Sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected

  • Depression

  • Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life

  • Guilt

  • Anger

  • Alienation

  • Isolation

  • Distrust

  • Fear of going crazy

  • Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen

  • A tendency to think in terms of black and white

  • A tendency to spiritualize everything

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Low self-esteem

  • Embarrassment

  • Employment and/or career problems

  • Dissociation

  • Floating/flashbacks

  • Nightmares

  • Family conflicts

  • Dependency issues

  • Sexual problems

  • Spiritual issues

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues

  • Impatience with the recovery process.

It can take a long time to recover from the mind control and abuse experienced in a destructive group.  It's important to get help and remember it's ok to take your time.

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