Growing up in a cult or coercive environment can be extremely challenging - or not.
Recovery can be a hugely complex experience - or not.
Such is the way with growing up in a cult - there are normal things. There are harmful things. It's hard to know what to feel once you're out.
Everyone's experience in a coercive group is unique. There's a mix of psychological, emotional, and social factors. Cults have varying beliefs, practices, and leadership,
Coercive control is universal in the childhood experiences of born and raised former members.
Whatever your experience is, knowing what to do after leaving a cult can be overwhelming.
Trigger warning - mentions of abuse, trauma, sensitive material
S/MGA - Second and Multi-Generational Adults
Cult-related content frequently uses the S/MGA acronym to describe second and multi-generation adult former cult members. It's a mouthful.
Second-generation cult members are the children raised by adults who join a group sometime during the child's lifetime. OR - It describes the children of first-generation adults who were converted before the birth of their children. You can be born OR raised in the group.
Multi-generation cult members are the children raised by adults inside a cultic environment from birth where the cult's ideology or theology has been part of the family system for generations. A critical delineation is that there are three or more generations of involvement in the group. You are born AND raised in the group.
In the largest study on born or raised former members to date, Dr. Cindy Matthews drew out 4 governing themes that these populations tend to struggle with:
A Sense of Identity
Fear and Courage
The Long Process of Change
This was echoed by her finding that the top-ranked issue for the S/MGAs surveyed was personal identity formation and exploration. This contrasted greatly with her findings on the top focus of mental health professionals focused on S/MGAs - relationships.
This illustrates how much more there is to learn about cult recovery, the lived experiences of group members, and how it can be difficult to give specific advice.
Second-generation adults and multi-generation adults are often lumped together due to the shared emphasis on childhood. This has pros and cons.
It increases awareness of how complex cult experiences are.
It helps generalize the need for post-cult care to a broader audience.
Research on these unique experiences is growing.
Significant differences exist between the experiences of second-generation and multi-generation former members. For example, second-gen adults may have pre-cult childhood memories - or they may not. A multi-gen former member won't.
These differences make it challenging to provide specific advice to mental health practitioners.
The nuance involved with differentiating these groups has been an area of focus in modern cultic studies.
If you're interested in a deeper dive on the subject, the People Leave Cults team held a panel at the 2023 ICSA Annual Conference discussing the experiences of S/MGA former members - which we've included below:
The takeaway here:
Life after the cult can be difficult for born or raised former members, especially since many leave parents, siblings, friends, or even their kids behind.
Now that you know a bit about the differences, let's discuss some unique challenges these survivors face.
The Difficulties of Recovery After Growing Up in a Cult
Despite the differences in second- and multi-generation former members, there are commonalities in the potential for recovery.
Below, we discuss some critical difficulties S/MGA former members often face in their cult recovery journeys.
#1: Family Members, Faith, and Trauma
Leaving a cult can be traumatic, as it involves potentially breaking away from a community that one has grown up with. There is a real possibility of severing ties with family and friends who remain in the group.
You can read more here on statistics about cults and trauma.
In some instances, families do attempt to leave together, but that poses challenges as well. Whether your family leaves with you or not, deciding to leave can add strain to a family system and make the individuation process more challenging.
The blending of family tensions, questioning of faith, and lived experience of trauma illustrates the dark side of recovery for S/MGAs. It can be challenging to pull apart one's faith from familial relationships - and trauma can further complicate all of this.
Even if your family was loving and provided for basic needs, there's still potential for them to cause or catalyze trauma and abuse while under the group's influence. There may have been emotional or physical abuse. There may have been spiritual abuse. You may have been subject to public humiliation. You may not have felt safe.
Those experiences can stick with you, and they're part of the unique childhood trauma of being raised in a cult.
The complexity involved is one of many reasons that a born or raised former member might struggle to find adequate care after leaving a group.
#2: Overcoming Isolation
Cults can isolate their members from the outside world, including from family and friends who are not part of the group.
In cases of severe isolation, an individual can be cut off from social interactions, meaningful relationships, and external stimuli to an extreme degree. This can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a person's well-being.
It can occur in various contexts, such as in certain types of institutional confinement, imprisonment, remote locations, or even due to abusive relationships.
Isolation in a coercive group setting doesn't always involve complete physical separation from others though. A group can still have external interaction but inwardly isolationist.
Here are just a few of the ways that cults can isolate a child raised in the group:
Limited Social Interaction: Minimal, highly controlled, or no interaction with others can limit friendships, professional opportunities, or contribute to feelings of isolation.
Lack of Stimulation: Abstention from entertainment, educational resources, or varied experiences can contribute to blind spots after leaving (discussed more below).
Coping Mechanisms: People in isolated groups or families might develop unconventional coping mechanisms or behaviors in response to their circumstances.
The "Golden Child": Some born or raised former members may be elevated or praised due to high performance, skill in a valuable area, or because they don't cause much trouble. This can add pressure to that individual and prevent them from exploring new opportunities or relationships.
Prison of Specialness: A group can make adherents feel special or unique by claiming to be saved, chosen, or above other belief systems. This specialness may be used to dissuade members from pursuing deep or meaningful relationships outside the group - or even as motivation to proselytize.
Regardless of the severity, group-centric isolation can make it difficult for individuals to develop a sense of normalcy or form relationships outside the cult. Overcoming these challenges is possible but can take time for those raised in a coercive environment.
#3: Reframing Control, Manipulation, Emotions, and Identity
Cult leaders and coercive groups typically exert a high degree of control over their followers' lives.
Manipulative tactics (including fear, shame, and guilt) are used to maintain obedience and discourage questioning. Fear of punishment, whether physical, spiritual, or psychological, can be used to keep members compliant.
A 2007 study on college students (not cult members) indicated that a psychologically controlling environment can negatively impact identity formation.
Research by Dr. Gillie Jenkinson has shed light on the idea that cult-affected individuals can have a strong cult identity that supersedes their individuality, making it challenging to develop a clear sense of self. In her words:
I have concluded that the cult pseudo-personality is not doubling, a false self, simply adaptation, or dissociation. While mimicking a dissociated part, it is actually an introjected foreign part that needs chewing over in order to discern which bits are nourishing and should be kept and which bits need digesting and eliminating. - Gillie Jenkinson, PhD
We highly recommend reading the original article and Dr. Jenkinson's published works.
Personal choices, including significant life decisions, are often made under the guidance or approval of the group leadership. Alternatively, actions can be dictated according to governing spiritual beliefs or ideologies. However these choices are controlled, lack of autonomy can extend to career choices, relationships, thoughts, beliefs, clothing, diet, daily routines, and more.
Reframing control after experiencing manipulation involves regaining autonomy, developing healthy identity, and building resilience against future manipulation.
Recognizing manipulation, accepting one's emotions, and exercising self-compassion are vital skills that help recovery.
Finding support and a safe community are also ways to reclaim autonomy.
With time, effort, and support, you can build a healthier foundation for decision-making and interactions in a new life post-cult.
#4: Blind Spots and the Outside World
Cults often promote a distorted view of the world, emphasizing their beliefs and interpreting events in ways that align with their ideology.
Alongside potentially restricted access to education and information, limited exposure to diverse ideas can lead to blind spots in a former member's understanding of themselves, others, and the world around them.
Here are some common blind spots that born or raised former members might have (this list pulls from the works of Dr. Jenkinson and Dr. Matthews, which are linked in the above sections):
Idealization of Leadership: Cult leadership is often portrayed as wise, infallible, or divine figures. Members born into the cult may have difficulty seeing a leader's flaws or holding them accountable for their actions.
Misunderstanding of Healthy Boundaries: Cults often blur the lines between personal boundaries and group loyalty. Former members might need help recognizing and enforcing appropriate boundaries in relationships outside the group.
Fear of Outsiders: Cults frequently portray outsiders as threats or sources of negativity. Former members might carry that inherent distrust of people even after leaving, making it challenging to form authentic connections.
Cognitive Dissonance: When faced with conflicting information or doubts about what a group taught, members might experience cognitive dissonance. This psychological discomfort arises from holding contradictory beliefs.
Fear of Rejection: Leaving a cult can mean severing ties with family and friends who remain. Fear of rejection from loved ones can make it harder for individuals to leave or speak out against the group.
Underdeveloped Critical Thinking: Cults often discourage critical thinking and questioning of their beliefs. Individuals raised in such environments may find it harder to analyze information objectively and make independent judgments.
Limited Life Skills: Cults may discourage practical skills development or over-emphasize a specific skill set. These limitations are sometimes tricky to uncover and may impact relationships, finances, health, or other critical areas.
Emotional Dependence: Born and raised former members might have a strong emotional attachment to the group and its members. This attachment can make it difficult to leave or create a strong pull to return to the group - even if the former member recognizes problems.
Difficulty Adapting to Mainstream Society: Transitioning from a highly controlled environment to the complexity of the outside world can be overwhelming. Catching up and understanding pop culture, society, or current events is complex.
Health Issues: Some groups have counter-cultural opinions on modern healthcare practices that aren't based in scientific fact. This can lead to medical neglect even after leaving the group.
Overcoming blind spots requires education, support, and personal growth. Unlearning ingrained beliefs and improving critical thinking skills takes time and effort.
Cult survivors might benefit from therapy, counseling, and support groups specializing in helping their unique situation.
People Leave Cults
S/MGA former members of high-demand groups have a unique post-cult experience.
There are challenges, but there is also hope for recovery.
The cult recovery field is growing, and working with a professional can help you understand the psychological and emotional challenges associated with your experience.