Staying Clear of Recovery Cultism

Does your group say it is the only true spiritual 
or secular path to recovery? 
Do you spend many nights at meetings 
or endless hours in on-line Internet meetings? 
Do you fear being rebuked, shunned or ignored 
for expressing a different opinion? 

You could be in cult, not a real self-help group

Recovery Cultism 
Are you in a cult?
Is your support group a cult?


''Nobody sets out to join a cult. No one knowingly wants to give up their life, their needs, their goals. ''They come to believe they're improving themselves and improving the world and it is then they are led into a psychological trap. It could happen to anybody.”
Steve Hassan – Leading American Exit-Counselor   

Recovering alcoholics, addicts, adult children of alcoholics and co-dependents are especially susceptible to joining cults or sects. Often anxious, fearful, lonely, shameful, confused and depressed, we emerge from the fog of addiction vulnerable, naïve and gullible. We lack the inner resources and abilities to cope with the world around us. We are lost, seeking help, feeling abandoned and hopeless. Our sense of self-worth and self-esteem is abysmally low. We have no clear conception of our selves and a frail and uncertain sense of self-identity. Very often we are unsure of who we are or what the purpose of living is. In such a condition our powers of judgment and decision-making are impaired. Naturally, we follow the advice of those who seem to have our best interests at heart or have authority over us. Fearing death from alcohol or drugs, we voluntarily (or sometimes not) join organizations, which offer help and relief, but at a price. A price we are not aware of at the time and that we might not agree to if we new the consequences.

When anyone mentions the word cult or sect, we usually think of   groups like the Moonies, Branch Davidians or Lifespring. Many alcoholics and addicts fall for these and lesser known groups in desperation when trying to rid themselves of a miserable life of addiction. However, what also we fail to see is that many officially accepted recovery groups can also be cults hiding behind a thin facade of social respectability. Some psychologists and cult specialists have already raised the question of whether the 12 Step groups are indeed cults, endangering the long term psychological well-being of their members. "Groupthink" or thought control, cloning, mystique, self-confessions, "groupspeak", veneration of texts and leaders, etc are some of the features of recovery groups typical also of cults. Indeed, one should also be wary of non-12 Step groups, psychotherapy groups and even secular organizations.
Your support group does not have to believe in a Higher Power or follow 12 Steps to be in danger of being cult. Groups can be secular and scientific and still qualify as cults.   

If we are lucky the groups we join may help us achieve or maintain some level of sobriety. However, in return, we may pay with the loss of our individualism, personality, self-identity and our ability to re-establish our place in the “real world” as functional, independent, free-thinking individuals. In the name of recovery members' intrinsic sense of self-identity is frequently undermined by the methods employed by a group. In fact, the methods used to keep some of the members abstinent are often the cause of serious psychological disorders. Such methods are extreme cult-like pressures to conform, emotional manipulation, threats and fear, reward and punishment and systematic deconstruction of the personality and its replacement by a pseudo-personality consisting of an artificial Cult Self or Sober Self. 

It is probable that the limited success of groups like AA ("curing" around only 1 in 5 addicts) has nothing to do with the use of a therapeutic method and more to do with brain washing. Those 12 Step members who stay sober for long periods probably do so as a result of the cult discipline and mind control, much in the same way that certain religious cults achieve periods of enforced celibacy and other acts of abstinence.12 Step sobriety may be achieved through methods of thought control and identity destruction, coupled with group coercion, fear, reward and punishments, isolation, reality distortion, linguistic programming, indoctrination and threats.    

"But don’t be ridiculous” you’re probably saying. “ My support group can’t be a cult. It is full of caring, courageous people doing a lot of good for others and themselves.” That is probably true, but a member of the Moonies or Branch Davidiians would no doubt say the same thing. Indeed, all cults deny they are cults and practice exactly the opposite of what they preach - loving Christians cults practice violence and destruction; personal growth groups cause personality destruction; ultra democratic groups practice internal dictatorships, and so on. 

“Ah yes” you say “but cults are religious fanatics, with charismatic gurus – we don’t have any of that”. In fact, a cult doesn’t have to have a living guru, be fanatically religious, or religious at all. That is just one cult variation. Cults can be secular, are found in the fields of psychotherapy, politics, science, business training, self help and new age movements. A cult can form around an idea, a book, a mission, a vision, a theory, etc. Often cults  form through split aways from healthy organizations under the excuse of it being degenerate, insufficiently fundamentalist, or badly organized. This is usually provoked by the need of the breakaway cult members to find solace in certainty, black and white thinking and set answers for everything. What Fromm called the "Escape from Freedom". Moreover, just as nobody decides to join a cult, cult members never think or admit they are in one. Cult members like to reassure themselves in collective self-delusion that they are superior, even denouncing other groups as being cults and/or congratulating themselves on being the true path, being rational and objective and even trumpeting their own non-cultism!

Forms of  “cultism” can, therefore, vary from group to group and take on different, special characteristics. Recognizing a cult is not always easy, especially for the cult member. Alcoholics, addicts, co-dependents and children of alcoholics in particular will often defend their groups with the same passion and denial that they once defended their addiction, their alcoholic family or partner. Overcoming this is a process of acceptance and acknowledgement, gathered through increasing awareness. 
So, before we start a warning! You will need to have an independent mind, give honest answers or battle to achieve it, in order to benefit from this article. Denial is often the first defense reaction to these issues, especially where you may see no other alternative and where for recovering alcoholics and addicts and co-dependents, isolation and relapse can seem to be the only alternative to continuing cult membership. What to do if you feel you are in a cult is something we will come to at the end.  
How then can we recognize and classify a cult? 

The American Family Foundation defined cults as:
"A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive 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), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families or the community."

The sociological definition includes such things as “as authoritarian leadership patterns, loyalty and commitment mechanisms, lifestyle characteristics, (and) conformity patterns (including the use of various sanctions in connection with those members who deviate)”  

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
definition in regard to cults in health circles describes them as “
a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator” and in general, as a small group of people characterized by “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work”  

Key Cult Features

The following characteristics of cults and sects are based upon the cult classification systems of the world’s leading cult experts like, Singer, Langone Lifton and Hassan. An organization doesn’t have to have all of these characteristics to be a cult, and variations on the characteristics are many, it just has to have a good number of them to be a cult or moving in the direction of becoming one. 

Recognizing “Groupthink”
Singer stresses that all cults are based firstly on a thought reform programme. Such programmes aim to dilute people’s individuality, change their core belief systems and alter their concept of themselves. This is done by imposing a “totalistic ideology” which “explains everything” Such groups will say they are “THE WAY”, the “ONLY WAY” be it in religion, science, self-help, psychotherapy or politics. Lifton points out that "included in this mystique is a sense of ‘higher purpose’, of ‘having directly perceived some imminent law of social development’, of being themselves the vanguard of this development" Consequently, all other groups are charlatans, shams, impostors, degenerate, etc. Normally they have authoritarian leaders and lieutenants at all levels and/or they venerate the works of dead leaders to justify their totalistic ideology and actions. Not choosing the group’s Way will usually lead to humiliation, damnation or death. To achieve this they such a phenomenon members undergo what has been called “brainwashing”, “mind control” in order to achieve  “Groupthink”. 

 Below are some key techniques used for achieving this:  

The cult relies on the vulnerability and naivety of the person, who is unaware of the indoctrination process being used. Most cult members are from the educated middle class, including lawyers, doctors, psychologists, business people etc. A good proportion, though not all come from dysfunctional families and/or suffer alcohol or drug problems. In general, new members are usually undergoing a personal crisis and are easy prey for all-embracing solutions. They are then pressurized to gradually adjust to their environment so subtlety, that they don’t notice the changes to themselves or, indeed, when they do, they view those changes as positive ones. From the beginning they are unwittingly seduced into replacing their own beliefs and values with those of the group and persuaded that their everything about their former lives, personality and character before joining the group was worthless and degenerate.  

2) A regime exists where the individual feels a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and the lack of other alternatives, under an authoritative or authoritarian system. A member is told they will be destroyed or corrupted by negative pressures and that they can maintain their purity within the groups ranks.  

3) 3) Cults prey on human aversion to uncertainty. The group supplies ready made answers for everything, thus helping to reduce insecurity and fear. Everything is seen in terms of black and white, pure and the impure, good and evil. There are set answers for everything and no room for uncertainty, controversy, healthy debate or doubt. The member is given a complete solution. In return, members of the group are expected to be unquestioning in their commitment to the group’s identity, its ideas and leaders (or past leaders).

Environmental & Time Control
The group asserts increasing control over a member’s time and social and psychological environment. Members are expected to attend many meetings and involve themselves in other activities, reducing their contact with the outside world. Members may be directly encouraged to break relations and social contact with former friends, acquaintances and even loved ones. Gradually, it becomes more and more difficult for members to imagine a life outside their organization.  

Other group members work in meetings and on a private basis to undermine new members’ confidence in their own perceptions and opinions. A personal mentor may be appointed to accelerate integration and mind control. Bad feelings are always the fault of the person and not the group. Only "good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged and “negative” thinking is jumped on. Members are to report their thoughts, feelings and activities to the group or their mentor. They are expected to ask permission when taking any major decisions in their lives and sometimes minor ones, making them less and less able to think or decide for themselves or function without the group. A person’s ego is destroyed, they begin to doubt their own judgment and soon there is a loss of free will.
Reward & Punishment
Within cults there is immense pressure to conform. They use a combination of flattery, threats and guilt. A system of punishments and rewards is used to encourage group learning and reduce unwanted behavior. Punishments like isolation, shunning, “tut-tuts” and humiliation are used to cause fear and obedience, while, alternatively, recognition, praise and “strokes” are sparingly awarded by older members for obedience and loyalty to Groupthink by the newer ones.

7) Group meetings often include confessional sessions where members admit to past or present sins against the norms of the group - doing bad deeds, thinking bad thoughts, etc, and in return, they receive both admonition, warnings and praise for their confessions. To help cultivate emotional control public exhibitions of emotional highs and lows are often encouraged and applauded as a form of ritual self-flagellation.    

8) “Groupspeak” is another feature of all cults. Groups use what Lifton calls "the thought-terminating cliché”. Repetitive phrases, clichés, sayings, platitudes and buzz words are regularly invoked to describe all situations, and prevent further analysis or discussion. Any disagreements are usually settled by referring to the sayings or writings of wise leaders (past or present), rather than by turning to independent analysis. Members are rewarded for their ability to regurgitate this “Groupspeak” and for their willingness and talent for putting down dissenters with cult clichés. Lifton argues that the effect of is critical to mind control “since language is so central to all human experience, .. capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed" Moreover, the “secret vocabulary” reinforces the idea of distance from the outside world.  

9) Cults "clone" people into smaller versions of the cult leader(s) and members. Visiting a branch of the same cult in Toronto or Tokyo will find yourself in the presence of the same “person” or type. Cults rob people of their individuality, personality and uniqueness and replaces it with the cult “Self”, which implants a cult personality in place of the person’s real self.    

10) Not content with creating a false conception of the present, cults are also not adverse to rewriting history also. Whenever historical fact or the truth doesn’t fit in with the cult leaders’ designs and aspirations, they simply change it. As Lifton says “past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic” The new line “simply replaces the realities of individual experience..."  

Lies & Deceit
11) The cult leader(s) is prepared is to lie blatantly and obscenely about other individuals or organizations, with total disregard for the truth or any sense of moral objectivity. A frequent tactic by cult leaders is to avert attention from their own sins by accusing others inside or outside their organization of crimes for which they themselves are guilty. Only those who are group members are truly good, sane, wise or sober. Since members loose the faculty of critical judgment and the ability to think for themselves, they never question the lies and distortions of their leader(s). Members feel total loyalty to those who have “saved them” and follow in blind obedience.    

12) Leading figures, either alive or dead, are honored and venerated. Statements are often supported by quotations and sayings from sacred writings or speeches. Predictions of catastrophe or damnation are common. This can be anything from Armageddon, to madness, persecution or alcoholic/drug relapse. Very frequently those who have come from crisis situations are warned that leaving the group will bring certain relapse.   

Undemocratic Reality
13) The direction of the group comes from a shadowy leadership, rarely seen and with little or no real democratic controls. There are assurances about the democratic character of the group and its strident democratic checks and procedures. Indeed, on paper the cult may appear to be super democratic, but in practice everything is run by leader(s) and cliques and committees, and committees within committees, picked from the chosen few and frequently made up of the same people. The cult uses a closed system of logic, where no feedback is allowed and revisions are only made by higher authorities. Leaders often amass personal power, often including wealth and sexual favors.  

Mystique & Mission
Cults often have an internal aura of mystique in which members feel they have “a sense of ‘higher purpose’, of ‘having directly perceived some imminent law of social development’, of being themselves the vanguard of this development" (Lifton) This includes delusions about historical roles, being “chosen ones”, the “vanguard” “pioneers” and leading new, mass social, political, religious or scientific movements. This gives a sense of purpose in life, for members who entered feeling their life had no meaning or goal.  

Disturbed Gurus
15) Cult leaders are often charming, charismatic figures with above average intelligence. The charismatic charmer is one their personalities – a pseudo-personality -  Many suffer from borderline, disassociate or multiple personality disorders. Members feel honored to be with, and be seen, around them. But their personality can change dramatically in a flash. Cult leaders are always very disturbed individuals. They are usually victims turned persecutor, having a history of involvement in other social, political or religious cults and/or suffering the effects of a traumatic childhood. Behind their strong and confident exterior (pseudo-personality) they need their leader position to compensate for a very fragile sense of self-worth, self-esteem and self-identity. This is also shown be the fact that they cannot "hack it" in the real world and need to live in a cult/sect environment to live out their problems. Their past histories show social marginality and a tendency to drift from one cause to another, one cult to another, one job to another, one marriage to another, etc. They spend their lives dedicated to their cause (increasing through the Internet, also now). They are obsessive-compulsive, fanatical and manipulative. Nothing will stand in the way of their visions, schemes and self-glorification - not even the well-being of their partners or children. They manipulate the minds of vulnerable members, extorting money and sexual favors and/or abusing them psychologically, physically and/or sexually.

Links to Cult Resources



Cult Watch
10 Points to look out for in your group members

  1. Obsession about group or the leader putting it above most other considerations.

  2. Member’s individual identity becomes increasingly fused with the group, the leader and/or God followed by the group.Cloning of the group members or leader’s personal behaviors.

  3. Emotional overreaction when the group or leader is criticized. Seen as evil persecution.

  4. Belief that the group is "THE WAY" and they have a mission

  5. Increasing dependency upon the group or leader for problem solving, explanations,  definitions and analysis, and corresponding decline in real, independent thought.

  6. Excessive hyperactivity and work for the group or leader, at the expense of private or family interests. Drifting away from family and old friends

  7. Preparedness to blindly follow the group or leader and defend actions or statements without seeking independent verification.

  8. Demonization of former members or members of alternative groups.

  9. Desire to be praised for doing the right thing and fear of public rebuke

  10. Unhealthy wish to be seen with or aligned publicly with the leader(s) of the group

Cult Leaders
5 Points to look out for in your group leader

  1. Authoritarian approach and intolerance of questioning or criticism. Lies about and insults opponents.

  2. Leader shows anxiety about the world, speaking of threats or conspiracies against the group.

  3. Leader regularly accuses dissatisfied members who leave of having something wrong with them, having personality disorders or being transgressor and deserters.  

  4. Ex-members have similar stories of abuse and ill-treatment by the leader(s). 

  5. The group/leader is always right and followers never feel they can be "good enough".


The Questionnaire can only be used 

Cult Questionnaire

1) Does your group claim to be the 
only "Way"?

2) Are you told there is no alternative?
3) Are you told leaving means certain degeneration, death or relapse?
4) Do members see themselves as different from society, "special", "chosen"  "pioneers" or on a "mission"?
5) Do you feel strong pressure to conform?
6) Do dissenters face rebuke or isolation?
7) Are there answers, clichés, quotes & slogans for everything?
8) Do you have a social life outside the group?
 9) Do you spend huge amounts of time in group activities ?
10) Are you expected to make regular confessions of private issues?

11) Do you ask the group for advice on life decisions before acting?

12) Are there many "clones" in the group?
13) Do you have a personal mentor, sponsor or inspector?

14) Does the group claim to be ultra democratic?
15) Are there favorites, cliques and secret circles, hidden hierarchies?
16) Are there rituals, initiations, proclamations, charters, ceremonies?
17) Does the group offer certainty over uncertainty; absolute truths, black and white answers in the name of  religion or science?
18) Is a living or dead leader venerated?
19) Do leaders flatter, cajole and rebuke to manipulate members for control, power, money and/or sex?
20) Has the leader ever been the member of another political, social or religious sect?
21) Are other groups ridiculed
 or lied about?




A cult does not have to have all of the characteristics in the table or in the description alongside. However, if you have answered Yes to more than 30% of these questions, there is a very good chance that you are in a cult which can seriously damage your life and health.    


Consequences of Cultism

Psychological damage from cult membership

People who join cult and sects are often normal, well-educated folks going through an episodic crisis. Many others may already suffer from problems inherited from dysfunctional and alcoholic families, as well as adult psychological, obsessive-compulsive or addictive disorders. Whatever ones background and condition upon entering a cult/sect, research shows that most members (including "normal" people) leave badly damaged psychologically and face great  difficulty coping with their internal and external lives.  
The effect is very similar to PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is caused by the overwhelming unseen, but continuous strain and stress of cult membership on the psyche and personality. In some cases, it is also caused or compounded by physical or sexual abuse. Since cult members' lives focus on the group, they become divorced from the real world and natural relationships. This together with the constant pressure and alertness needed to conform and perform as expected puts their minds and bodies under a persistent and unnatural state of stress. The pernicious psychological abuse suffered in cults is sufficient to create a feeling of powerlessness and  helplessness in the face of life events and one's own emotions. Ex-members often feel unable to cope with life on their own and feel unable to control their own lives. As a human being they come to feel that they have been humiliated, degraded and worthless. Those who already suffer from PTSD as a result of an upbringing in dysfunctional and alcoholic homes, risk compounding the problems inherited from their illness and childhood relations. Typical symptoms of cult membership are :

Sleeping disorders
Emotional Volatility
Loss of Identity
Difficulty taking decisions
Feelings of dread
Negative thinking & imaging cycles
Difficulties in social relations
Family conflicts
Fear of losing sanity
Feeling out of control
Suicide, suicidal thoughts or idealization
Hyper arousal
Emotional and Behavioral constriction
Irritability, excitability & aggressiveness


Cult experience could be described as 
"rape of the personality". Consequently, most cult members come to suffer from personality disorders like Dissociative Identity Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Multiple Personality Disorder. They can "float" back into their cult personalities as a result of external or internal stressors and triggers.
They may suffer nightmares, flashbacks, depersonalization, dissociation and out-of-body experiences and disorientation.
Recovery from cults takes time and patience, but can be successful. People need to find their true selves again and regain self-awareness, self-worth, self-confidence and a sense of perspective. Despite everything they experience, research shows that their true self remains suppressed, but existent, under the pseudo-personality superimposed by the cult. Healing and growth needs combined efforts and professional help. Sufferers may need to enlist the support of the following:

Medical help
Individual psychotherapy
Group psychotherapy
Exit counseling
Family therapy
Career counseling


What to look for in an Organization
Healthy organizations are voluntary associations where people collaborate to work out their ideas with a shared purpose and specific goal. Everyone is free to criticize and hold different opinions from that of the group’s leadership. Differences of opinion are welcomed and respected. There is no psychological pressure to conform and no atmosphere of enforced uniformity. Members view themselves as a part of society in general involved in a group for practical and limited reasons. Members spend only a reasonable part of their spare time in group activities and enjoy a completely separate family, social and professional life. Healthy groups are democratic in practice and not just in theory. Members are free to come and go as they please. They participate as they wish, without feeling excessive guilt or shame for not attending meetings, donating time or money. Nobody fears any physical or psychological reprimand for missing meetings or refusing tasks. Members put their personal needs first and are able to differentiate those from the needs of the group. They decide for themselves their relations with the group and are able to reassess their level of commitment and also leave the group without creating a major personal crisis or conflict with the group


SOS and Cults
SOS prides itself on its anti-cultist and free-thought approach. While no human organization is free from the dangers of cultist degeneration, SOS has been happily free of these problems. Where it has emerged, this has resulted in individuals and small groups splitting away to form their own groupings. These groups all quickly disappeared or degenerated into small local fads. One such process is now taking place with the larger LifeRing group, which we hope does not degenerate into a secular cult. SOS does not consider itself "the Way", but only one way to self-help and sobriety. Indeed, within our ranks we have many different approaches. 
SOS has no central apparatus, hierarchical structures or authoritarian leaderships. Each individual is a leader in his or her own sobriety. Our philosophy is that each individual is unique and should therefore find and fashion their own road to sober living and a full life. We have no interest in members private beliefs or lifestyles. All groups are independent and work together as a voluntary association of free-thought groups.

Find out more about SOS
Click below


Being in control of your own mind includes being in touch with your feelings, having the ability to think analytically, question, look at issues from multiple perspectives, having control of your behavior to take periodic "time-outs" in order to reflect and be able to have access to information which may be "negative" to the group leadership.”
Steve Hassan


Why The Steps work for some people





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