Updated: Jun 28
Spoiler alert: it isn't easy.
Edited in collaboration with Ashlen Hilliard
In this post, we share 6 steps to leave a cult:
Understand your situation
Decide when to leave
Create or seek a landing pad
Recover and rebuild
Before we begin, we need to do some housekeeping.
If you are in an emergency, contact your local emergency service.
This is not an all-inclusive guide or "foolproof" method to leaving a cult.
Current members of groups are advised to seek professional help if possible to understand the nuances of their situation, develop an exit strategy, and carefully move forward.
This post is not meant to be a step-by-step guide or playbook. Rather, it's an attempt to help current members see the landscape of their involvement, anticipate next steps, and develop an exit strategy that fits their unique situation.
In all cases, PLC's official stance is that professional help, guidance, and support are the best path forward. This post is not intended to be a medical service or provide professional counseling. It is not a substitute for professional care.
We also want to talk about why we're writing this to begin with, as one could make an argument that a post with this title is a bit sensational. The answer is twofold: SEO and compassion.
For SEO: as of the writing of this post, the phrase "how to leave a cult" is Googled ~200 times per month in the United States. If even 1% of those people can be reached by this blog post, we feel that helping them is better than not.
For compassion: it's the help we would want if we turned to an algorithm to help us make a life-altering decision. Learning how to get out of a cult from the internet is a brave undertaking.
We hope this helps.
Prologue: Am I In A Cult?
I remember the first time I asked this question of the faith I was born and raised in. It was frightening, disorienting, and felt like sacrilege.
In the end though, the answer to that question didn't matter.
What DID matter was whether or not I was being harmed by the group's teachings and the environment created by its members - and I personally saw that I was.
In our experience talking with ex-members, the majority don't answer the "Am I in a Cult?" question before they leave.
It didn't matter if I was in a cult, because I was in a group that minimized and belittled my sense of self, slowed my personal and psychological development, and perpetuated ideas or actions that harmed other people.
You may share some of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences - and you may not.
Understanding concepts like spiritual abuse, thought reform, and coercive control may not happen until one has left harmful environments or relationships -- and that is okay!
It may take months or years later to fully explore these concepts.
There is not one right "timeline to recovery". When we are in groups or relationships that are abusive, fight or flight responses may be the guiding force in our decision to stay or leave.
The key question that I (and many other group members) settled on is: does my involvement in this group harm others or myself?
Rather than wrangle about whether you are in a cult or not, try to understand if you are being harmed, if your freedoms are being limited, or if you are being coerced. Defining harm may be difficult for you, but is a worthwhile practice.
If your answer to the above question is yes, then you may find the information in this article helpful. Readers concerned about a loved one's involvement in a harmful group may also benefit from the ideas shared below.
Whatever your reason for reading, rest assured: People Leave Cults.
#1: Understand Your Situation
The word cult is often seen in a negative light, and those who have left cults hold an internal fear that they are somehow lesser than friends or family who aren't involved. The first thing to know is that this couldn't be further from the truth.
Cult involvement is not a shameful thing. Your involvement does not make you less of a person, stupid, or unforgivable.
There are numerous ways that individuals join a coercive group, including:
Being born into and raised in a group.
Joining a group for community or shared interests.
The group provided a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Your support for a worthy mission led you to the group.
The group empowered a sense of spiritual and personal growth.
Lack of awareness of coercive practices made you vulnerable to a group's rhetoric.
You joined of your own volition to see what in-group life is like.
The list goes on and on.
Whatever your reason for involvement, the fact is that most cult members think about leaving, try to leave, or successfully leave their group at some point.
Wherever you are in your personal beliefs and thinking, it's important to know that you are not alone. Involvement in a coercive group has no bearing on an individual's intelligence, self-worth, abilities, or potential.
Former cult members share many similarities on the path to recovery, and the more you can find these support group settings, the better your chances are of understanding, processing, and moving on from your cult involvement.
Groups Are a Support Network
A significant barrier faced by many cult members looking for an exit is community.
The nature of many cults is to create a pattern of in-group and out-group thinking among cult members. It's one of many "mind control techniques" that allows a controlling group to operate.
The core idea is that people in the group can be trusted to have your best interests at heart. Those outside the group are framed as untrustworthy due to their lack of understanding, "hatred" of the group, or jealousy over a lack of in-group status.
This results in a significant hurdle that ex-cult members often grapple with:
Leaving a cult means leaving your support system.
If you leave a coercive group, the cult members who remain can attempt to renew your involvement -OR- can cut you off completely. Either option poses difficult challenges for ex-members.
Awareness is key. Do not try to anticipate how events will transpire, but be aware that common group tactics seek to isolate and undermine your experiences. Breaking the hold of coercive control is difficult, but many survivors see it as worthwhile.
Fundamental Assumptions Leave With You
It's very likely that some degree of critical thinking is helping you see your situation clearly and motivating a desire for a new life.
While this is a necessary part of reconsidering cult involvement and leaving a group, it's important to understand that the thoughts and fundamental assumptions that led you to the group will leave with you.
It takes time to sift through these thoughts and challenge them, so give yourself space to reconsider how your mind understands the world. Escaping a cult physically is different from escaping a cult's influence.
For more info on this, we recommend spending some time with Gillie Jenkinson's work on the pseudo-cult identity.
Do not expect yourself to shed all aspects of group ideology overnight.
It may feel confusing because not all memories that you had while in the group were bad. It's okay to have those positive memories and still understand that the best decision for you was to still leave that environment.
Realize That Leaving Will Be Difficult
If you suspect that you are a cult member and are looking to make a change, it's important to realize that it will be hard. Many ex-cult members leave behind important relationships, family members, locations, possessions, or stability when they leave their group.
You are not alone.
Your desire to leave is brave.
You have our deepest sympathies.
You will not always feel strong, but if you decide that leaving is right for you then congratulations.
#2: Decide If Now Is a Good Time to Leave
Once you've taken stock of your situation, it's important to know that leaving immediately may not always be the best course of action.
The keyword here is immediately. For most ex-cult members, leaving is one of the best changes they ever make.
That said, timing can impact a number of aspects tied to your recovery. When and how you leave is important.
Start by asking and answering some of the following questions:
Do you have responsibilities to others that will be affected by exiting the group?
Do you have access to essential resources inside of the group that will be denied upon exit?
Are you able to support yourself and any dependents financially after exiting?
Will leaving with your current mindset leave you vulnerable to other forms of coercion, or to retribution by the group?
I want to give a bit of context on why these are important.
Let's say, hypothetically, you're in a group with a spouse and child. If you decide to leave the group, you'll need to consider the relationships involved and your legal responsibilities.
If your spouse does not wish to leave and cannot legally gain sole custody of the child, you may find that the timing and tenor of your exit impacts more than just your life. Child support, alimony, visitation rights, and much more can impact the situation (this is not legal advice, consult a lawyer if you are in a similar situation).
This is one potential situation of many - every ex-cult member has a different circumstance.
The point here is not to get too caught up in any one set of particulars. Rather, I want to prime you to consider how relying on your own decisions rather than the group's teachings will be received by the group. From there, you can better determine whether your current situation allows for an effective exit.
Even if you feel fully prepared, circumstances may change and that's not your fault.
With that in mind, there are two experiences that crop up during this time that it's helpful to be aware of:
PIMO & FOMO
The complexities of leaving a cult put many ex-members into two psychological states:
PIMO - Physically in, Mentally Out
FOMO - Fear of Missing Out
Physically in, Mentally Out is a description of when a group member has decided internally that they no longer adhere to the group's ideologies or belief system but cannot physically change their circumstance.
Due to any number of factors they may be required to stay and "go through the motions" of the group despite internal disagreement. This is a common experience for the children of group members, commonly called second- or multi-generation members (S/MGAs).
If you're interested in learning more about this, Jill Mytton's research on S/MGAs highlights many of the impacts (cognitive, social, emotional etc.) being born or raised in a cultic group can have.
Fear of Missing Out is a description of an internal pining for a goal or perceived freedom that lies outside of involvement with the group.
For instance, one may be barred from pursuing a certain career or relationship while involved with the group - despite it being the subject of that person's attraction. This tension usually results in a feeling of anxiety that such opportunities may never arise again - resulting in "missing out".
These are difficult states to live in and sometimes provide fertile ground for conflict, irrational action, or complex pathologies.
Do your best to recognize if either of them describes your situation, and try to acknowledge that these feelings and thought patterns are a result of your circumstances. You may also want to note them for future discussion with mental health professionals.
It's also important to know that leaving a group is traumatic for many cult survivors.
You do not and cannot know how your decision will play out, and only you can decide when and if to fully leave (unless you are kicked out). Once you have decided, it's time to think about how to approach an exit.
#3: Create or Seek a Landing Pad
Understanding that the timing and tone of your departure are important, the next crucial step is to decide where you will go upon exiting the group.
Once again, it's difficult to pin down an exact formula that works for all ex-members.
Some are able to leave quickly, reconnect with old friends, maintain employment, and pursue recovery.
Others require careful planning, legal consultation, stressful confrontations, or even medical intervention.
Whatever your situation is, it's still a good idea to move forward with as much information as possible.
There are some key elements that you'll want in place in almost every situation, so we'll focus on those:
Safe, secure shelter for eating, sleeping, and socializing.
A source of food, water, and necessary medication.
The ability to seek, gain, or maintain employment.
Don't get too caught up in finding the "perfect" version of these resources.
Seeking safety is an important first step. Only then can you more clearly decide what comes next.
What About Friends or Family Outside of the Group?
If you've maintained connections with individuals outside of the group, it's possible that talking to them about your decision to leave can help.
The reality is that not everyone in your life can or will help you. While a friend or family member may support your decision to leave, it's often difficult for people with no cult involvement to understand the complexity of your situation.
When you're considering community outside of your cult, keep a few pointers in mind:
Seeking support from other members who are still in the group (or trying to get them to leave with you) is not advised. We talk more about why later.
People claiming to be cult deprogrammers often rely on unethical or unproven methods. We advise avoiding such individuals.
Turning to another religious group or organized religion can be beneficial, but be aware of the "cult hopping" phenomenon.
Sharing your involvement and trauma (publicly or privately) too willingly or too quickly can impede recovery and should be done with the guidance of a mental health professional (and sometimes even a legal advisor). Remember, at the end of the day, whether or not you want to share your story is up to you.
Some ex-members also find it helpful to seek out other like-minded people who have left a similar situation. If your area has a support group for ex-cult members and you want to see if it can help, engage cautiously and at your own pace. Don't be afraid to ask the organizers questions!
As you strike out on your own, it's understandable to feel guilt or fear over this decision. Once again, you have our deepest sympathies - and our assurance that you are not alone.
Let's go through the checklist:
You are in a coercive group/cult and have decided to leave.
You have evaluated your situation and decided that now is a safe/appropriate time to leave.
You understand that leaving may involve sacrifice. It may be harder to leave than stay - that's the reality.
You have a safe, secure place to go.
You have access to basic necessities.
If you're good on the above items, you're as ready to leave as you'll ever be.
A few final words before you leave.
When you leave, don't take anything that isn't yours or cause harm to anything you leave behind. In essence, don't do anything illegal during your exit that the group may be able to use against you.
If you find yourself in an emergency, contact local emergency services and be open about your circumstances. While there's no guarantee they'll understand your situation fully, it's better to work through accepted channels than not.
If you own a cell phone or can gain access to a cheap pre-paid device, keep it handy.
Depending on the group you're in, you may need to leave quickly, secretly, and without proper goodbyes to those you care for. It may be difficult to leave, but remember that you're doing this for good reasons.
Document everything, especially if you are leaving a hostile situation.
#5: Recover and Rebuild
Have you ever seen the wreckage left behind by a storm?
Homes reduced to splinters. Trees uprooted and thrown down. Possessions scattered for miles and miles.
That's what a lot of former cult members feel at this stage of their exit.
But just like surviving a storm, the focus is on yourself. If you live through it, you'll be able to take stock of your surroundings, care for yourself and your loved ones, and then focus on recovery.
Build From Basics
When you've left your group, your immediate thoughts should be to prioritize yourself and your safety. If you have dependents in your care, you should prioritize their safety as well.
As stated above, start with food, water, shelter, and medicine.
A good conceptualization of this is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The core concept is that taking care of basic physical needs enables one to pursue other fulfilling aspects of life.
Once you've secured basic necessities, you'll want to consider a few paths forward:
Therapy/mental health education and awareness
Potentially cut off old relationships that can pull you back in/engage you
Learn emotional triggers and healthy recovery/coping strategies
Seek education on new career paths/opportunities for growth
Understand how your mind was controlled
Psychoeducation alongside therapy
You may feel a sense of overwhelm, which is okay.
You don't have to figure everything out all at once, so try to resist impulses brought on by FOMO or other anxious thoughts.
Group Involvement is Often Traumatic
Many ex-cult members feel that it's important to reflect, at their own pace, on their experience within the group.
Understanding and contextualizing involvement helps some people feel better equipped to re-engage with life and move forward.
If this is the case for you, a good place to begin is by understanding the concept of trauma and how groups perpetuate it.
Undue influence and coercive control by charismatic leaders is a common theme, but trauma can be caused by many other elements present in a cult:
Every person's experience is different, and we highly recommend working with a mental health professional at this stage of your journey. You may also find it helpful to connect with other ex-members for a sense of community and a safe place to talk.
Repair What You Can, Or Move On
Depending on your situation, there may be relationships outside the cult that can be repaired. For instance, talking to a friend or family member who knew you before the cult may or may not be helpful for you.
If you sense that recovering a damaged relationship outside of the cult has value, try it.
But also, understand that the other individual involved may not want to rebuild a relationship with you. Their feelings and decisions are valid, so do not force a relationship or interaction with someone who doesn't want it. This is sometimes part of moving on.
Rediscovery of Self is Hard Work
Grappling with your sense of self after a cult is another area where many ex-cult members suffer.
Exposure and adherence to undue influence leaves scars, and can leave you wondering how you ever believed or acted in accordance with the group. Coming to terms with these ideas is best done with the help of a professional.
Other common recommendations for self-discovery include:
Trying new things
Reflection on past struggles
Building new relationships
Involvement in healthy religion
These are just a few ideas.
And if you notice you're getting triggered by any of these, it's okay to take a break. Prioritizing yourself in these scenarios is healthy!
The core concept is to find a healthy way to express yourself and see where it leads you - in your own time.
Resist the Urge to be a Savior
A common emotion for former members is a desire to save other group members. Ex-members often feel that if the loved ones they left behind saw the abuses and harm of their former group, those people would be motivated to leave.
The reality is that those people have to make a decision about their involvement of their own volition.
Cult exit counselor Carol Giambolvo shared a powerful insight on this exact subject when discussing how cult survivors cope with triggers:
For your own protection, resist the urge to rescue people you left behind in the cult. Remember, they know the guilt buttons to push and all the phobia indoctrination to use. These could cause triggers for you, even as well prepared as you think you are.
If maintaining a relationship with them is possible (and healthy) for you, then over time you might be able to influence them away from the group.
However, remember that the decision to leave is up to them, and using undue influence to remove someone from a cult is unethical and perilous.
People leave when they're ready, and that's not up to you.
What If My Group Was Isolationist?
If you are an ex-member of a group that exists on the fringes of society and feel overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, do, and experience, we highly recommend this resource:
Starting Out In Mainstream America - By Livia Bardin, M.S.W.
To quickly summarize - it's a guide meant to help with everything from getting a driver's license to navigating relationships. It's 100% free and offers a digestible introduction to modern life in the United States.
Unfortunately, going through trauma doesn't make life stop.
Depending on your situation, you may have bills to pay or mouths to feed. You may have a career to fall back on, or you may not.
Whatever your situation, it's important to acknowledge one final thing:
Whatever your healing journey looks like, life goes on.
Survivors of spiritual abuse, a religious cult, or another type of coercive control have gone on to live full lives after the fact. My hope is that you'll be no different.
As much as I'd like this post to answer every question, concern, and potential path involved with leaving behind undue influence, that's just not possible. Or probably helpful.
The fact is that cult involvement and leaving isn't a straight path.
You'll love it and hate it.
Find an organization or support group that can provide resources and be a safe place. If you're interested, PLC aims to be such an organization.
As more people leave destructive groups and live their own life, it's become clearer than ever that ethical exit counseling has a place.
Families and friends that know how to love on and talk to former members are needed.
Most importantly, brave people who see that their groups are unhealthy and decide to leave are needed.
Stay safe, stay strong, and take care.