After many years of counseling people who are coming out of destructive cults or toxic relationships of any sort, the type of counseling I do is a bit different than that of my peers who do general counseling.

One of the issues I have become aware of is that the work starts many steps before typical counseling can even begin to take place.

When I was asked to go to Texas some years ago to train the social workers who were helping the women and children who had been taken from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints compound, the social workers told me they were trying to teach these women and children about their rights, but it didn’t seem to be clicking. I let them know that the reason that this might be because the idea of rights was foreign to these people, and acknowledging that you had rights was going against the leader, and therefore going against God.

The social workers had missed out on four important steps, steps that must be taken in order for them to begin the counseling relationship on the same level as any other of their “ordinary” clients.

Step one is making sure to meet with people individually, instead of meeting with them in groups, so that they have a chance to speak freely: because members are conditioned to report upon each other, they know that speaking in front of anyone else from the cult is tantamount to reporting back to the group.

Step two is finding ways to prove to these individuals that you can be trusted. Just being a social worker does not mean anything to a member of a high-control group – as a non-group member who does not believe the “right” way, you would be looked down upon, or be seen as a potential danger to them, rather than a source of comfort and support.

Step three is educating these individuals, helping them to define what their rights are, that they are constitutionally protected, and that rights are necessary in order to keep oneself safe.

convincing them they have rights

Step four is the hardest, but most important of all: you have to convince them that nothing bad will happen to them if they start to believe they have rights: the right to their own bodies, the right to question their beliefs, the right for those parents to raise their children in ways that are in line with their own conscience, the right to disagree or to have free speech at all, the right to come and go as they please, and the right to say “No”. This can only be successful if you are able to show them that doing any of this is not against God’s wishes, and will not be a sign that they are going against the cause or mission, and that is still vital even if it causes them to be shunned or ostracized, that it will not automatically put them or their loved ones in danger, and is not pride speaking, or the devil.  After these steps, THEN the counseling can begin.

When I meet with clients in my office who are considering leaving, or have already left, cultic groups or relationships, I remind them that even though they might see me as the authority figure in the room, they do not automatically have to share everything with me right away. I also try to assure them they need not fear sharing their information with me, as I will not be using their information against them like the cult or their abuser did. They need to know that they can trust me.

Individuals in cults are often warned that something bad will happen to them if they talk about their experiences and reveal the group’s secrets. Others are told that something bad will happen to the person they share the information with: on more than a dozen occasions, I have been asked to call my new clients after I arrive safely at home following our session, so they know no danger befell me after they shared information with me about the cult.

Some former cult members have been made to feel scared of therapists, so I often start by asking if they would like to first have a session on the phone, if they feel uncomfortable about coming to my office. I will offer to leave my office door open, as well, if it helps remind them they are not trapped and have the freedom to leave whenever they wish. Additionally, the office chair I sit in was carefully chosen so that it is no higher than any other chair or couch in my office. I wanted this to visually represent the fact that we are equals.

My clients should never feel that I need or expect them to revere me or fear me. All we are really doing is having a conversation. I encourage them to take the risk to disagree with me, if there is something I have said that doesn’t seem to be quite right for them. I want them to try that out with someone who will not condemn them for disagreeing, or turn it around and make it their fault or their problem. I let my clients know that I am working for them, and I encourage them to ask me questions about the way I work, so they can make a more fully-educated decision about entrusting me with their care. I want to empower them to be able to be smart and information-gathering consumers. These are life skills that are important to learn and to try out, and it’s best to take them on a test-run in a safe environment.

Starting therapy is an emotionally-charged moment for many people. I see how much bravery it takes for people just to make the call, start the conversation, reveal the “secrets”, push through any shame they unfortunately feel about the things that have been done to them, or the fears they have been given about talking to a therapist. Many also know they are running the risk of sounding crazy when they share what they used to believe, and to a certain degree might still believe, and this actually makes many people delay starting therapy, because they are afraid they’re going to be misdiagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.

In my next blog I will talk about the kind of work I like to do once the therapy starts, that is, the approach that I feel is the most effective overall for people who have been in cults or in highly controlling relationships.

Until then…

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about escaping from a high-control group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!