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How To Leave A Cult

Spoiler alert: it isn't easy.

Edited in collaboration with Ashlen Hilliard

In this post, we share 6 steps to leave a cult:

  1. Understand your situation

  2. Decide when to leave

  3. Create or seek a landing pad

  4. Leave

  5. Recover and rebuild

  6. Live

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.

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 become involved in 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.

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.