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How To Unbrainwash Yourself (Combatting Cult Mind Control)

Updated: May 22

If you suspect that your mind is not your own, what do you do?

It's a jarring question - one that many never have to face.

But if you do face it, there's no denying that you're likely overwhelmed. Having your sense of reality placed into question is a debilitating spark of internal violence.

I know how you feel, but I'm not going to tell you what to do with that feeling.

What this article addresses is how you can go about evaluating the ideas in your head, challenge your fundamental assumptions, and construct a new sense of self.

That's how you unbrainwash yourself.

Note: If you're looking to help someone combat cult mind control, the best way is to consider cult intervention. PLC uses an ethical model to meet people where they're at - and help them process their experience.

What Is Brainwashing / Mind Control?

The concept of brainwashing isn't straightforward.

It's also not exactly polite.

"Brainwashing" has the appearance of The Wizard of Oz - a performance put on due to the unethical coercion of the man behind the curtain. Someone forcing a pattern of thought and behavior on another person.

But it's way more sinister than that.

The reality for many victims of brainwashing is that it's a hijacking of their entire life brought about by mind control techniques and coercive control.

What might begin as placing trust in a friend or mentor has the potential to end in the drowning negative influence of a destructive loss of autonomy through a cult's mind control techniques.

Losing one's mind to another's control can have many downsides, including the fact that it creates a sense that no trustworthy person exists outside of a rare handful of people. If and when that illusion breaks, it brings on the idea that no one - not even yourself - if trustworthy.

Understandably, this can be devastating for former cult members, victims of coercion, and the friends or family members of the affected individual.

I'll be honest - as someone who has left religion in my past, I'm not even sure I like the term "brainwashing". It elicits a sick feeling and feels just as pejorative as being called a "cultist".

If you are a victim of coercive control, you may be called "brainwashed" - and I'm sorry for the whole picture. It's awful.

Since the terms "brainwashing" and "cult mind control" are the what we have for now, we'll use it - but know that it is not a judgement of your character. You can regain autonomy and critical thinking skills.

How Do I Tell If I'm Brainwashed / In A Destructive Cult?

There's no universal method to determine if someone is brainwashed, because there's no universal point of view amongst humans. We all have different opinions and love to explain why they matter.

The only appropriate way to approach this question is to understand the mechanisms of coercive control - and there are a number of models that can help you do that. While destructive cults are not the only place thought reform occurs, the experiences and deconstruction stories of former cult members have a lot to share about brainwashing itself.

For the purposes of this post, I'll share an exercise that can help you assess your situation and determine for yourself whether or not you're a victim of mind control.

Step # 1: Think About How You Got Here

People join cults - or get "brainwashed" - for a number of reasons.

And I'll say it again: even if you're not part of a destructive cult, you can still be the victim of mind control. It doesn't mean you should feel shame or think less of yourself though.

If you understand why you joined the group you're in, you can begin to pull the thread of what's keeping you around. It's a helpful place to start combating cult mind control.

Mind control - as insidious as it is - has an element of choice that makes the topic difficult to understand. It also makes it difficult in the eyes of the law.

You may have joined a group for:

  • Community

  • Answers

  • Love

  • Sex

  • Self Improvement

  • Peace

  • Gain

  • Affirmation

  • Spirituality

  • Escape

  • Family

The list goes on and on.

Starting with the reason you joined a group or decided to grow closer with someone may seem rather basic, but it's a starting place to help you understand the context of your life.

Maybe all your friends were in a group and that's why you stuck around initially. That's fine.

Maybe you experienced love bombing, messages meant to empower people, or other forms of community and growth in your group. A lot of former cult members share those experiences.

But when you get to the point of evaluating how you began to succumb to undue influence, you open the door for self-discovery, healing, and a "new identity" - if you want to call it that.

From this point, you'll be better equipped to decide if what you believed at first matches up to where you are now. If there's a negative influence in your life, it will stand out in stark contrast to the positives you want to see.

Step # 2: Distill Your Fundamental Assumptions

You could also label this as "decide what you like about your group/community."

When a way of viewing the world is given to you, it doesn't start with eschatological arguments or deep philosophical ponderings about the struggles of good and evil. Cult involvement doesn't usually start at the extremes.

It usually starts with a simple idea that resonates.

Things like:

  • War is bad

  • Peace is good

  • Greed is bad

  • Generosity is good

  • Ignorance is bad

  • Knowledge and learning are good

You see where this is going?

These aren't exactly difficult ideas to adhere to, and most coercive groups (at some level) will have a set of ideals that are fundamentally sound. Cult leaders don't always come out of the gate with a sign that says "I'm a cult leader" - ya know?

How patterns of thought and behavior are built up from these attractive core ideas - called fundamental assumptions - are ultimately what create a "brainwashing" scenario. You'd be surprised how quickly an extreme influence can take a great idea and dilute it with magical thinking.

For instance, saying greed is bad and generosity is good may be a core fundamental assumption that attracts someone to a group. The certainty of group members and the external appearance of this group may be curated in such a way as to allay suspicion and deepen trust. For a curious and trusting individual, continual participation and learning in the group may feel natural.

In some cases, it could be months (or years) before that group's ideologies build up to the level of coercive control. Without realizing it, the person who joined because generosity is good may be signing over their life savings to a cult leader who is now empowered to live out their greedy impulses.

No one ever accused cults of being unironic.

The point is - identifying these fundamental assumptions is a helpful exercise for a former cult member who is struggling to contextualize their experience. It tells you what you yourself are inclined to believe, and lays the groundwork for assessing how a group adheres to them.

Step # 3: Notice The Nice Things Are Outside The Window Too

As I indicated in the previous section, groups tend to provide some nice-to-have thing to the people who stay.

If everything were miserable no one would stay. At least you'd hope not.

Whether it's a physical or mystical victory, there's always something holding a person to a core set of beliefs. For instance, you may not like how women are treated in your church, but the music is nice.

The thing is, music is also nice in safe spaces for women.

Many of the nice things about coercive groups are also nice outside of a destructive cult. That includes community, love, answers, and all the other things in the list of why people join cults.

What prevents many people from leaving a situation involving "brainwashing" is a strong attachment to something they feel they can only get inside the group.

If you can have nice things both inside and outside your group, the question you really need to answer is this:

Step # 4: Ask "What Happens If You Leave or Disagree?"

I had a huge issue with my church. From my point of view, women weren't really treated as human - it was a fundamentalist idea of spiritual gender roles that just got under my skin.

When I would try to talk about these things, the air in the room would change.

If I tried to take it deeper, you could feel the conversation start to tighten.

By the time I'd deconstructed and left, it felt like some of the people who claimed to love me were happy to see me go.

When my family found out, all hell broke loose.

This is a pretty common story these days - children leaving the faith of their parents to find new ideas in modern times. It's almost a cliché - if it weren't such an awful experience to go through.

Predicting the aftermath of walking away is a double-edged sword, because you don't actually know how anyone will react to the decisions that you make.

If standing on your own convictions and walking away from a culture that stifles questions and results in interpersonal or institutional violence towards you, then how virtuous is the thing you're leaving behind?

Don't mistake what I'm saying for wanton moral relativism. There is nuance to this idea that a thousand blog posts can't convey. But when it comes to a destructive cult, this question is worthy of further exploration.

What I'm saying is that:

  • Healthy groups let people disagree and ask hard questions.

  • Healthy relationships understand that people can leave if they want.

  • Healthy communities don't resort to abuses of power, threaten those who disagree, or co-opt meaningful ideas into harmful ideologies.

If leaving a group results in violence, you're already experiencing violence.

Step # 5: Process Undigested Emotion

Thinking about losing a strong relationship or sense of certainty about the universe is distressing.

Going through with an action that severs a strong relationship or removes your concept of the world is traumatic.

Leaving destructive cults - and undoing their brainwashing - unfortunately involve both of those things.

The emotions that come up with contemplating a decision to combat mind control or leave a closed system are varied and complex. I cannot begin to help you process them, because they're different for every person.

What I can say is: process those emotions.

Whatever you decide, you'll have to live with both the real-life consequences and how you feel about them. Carrying around other people's thoughts and undigested emotions is not a good life.

Step # 6: Live What's Best For You

If you got here and your heart is in your throat, you've got some things to figure out.

Find someone to talk to (like a good therapist) and figure out what's going on in your brain.

Consider exit counseling, prioritize your mental health, and be patient with yourself as you explore the outside world.

Former members have gone on to do some amazing things,

You got this.

People Unbrainwash Themselves (And Other People)

It will feel like waking up.

Continuing to believe that you know something only to find that your faith is not as strong as your doubt is not weakness.

In fact, it is the opposite.

Admitting that what you held as truth is actually false is brave. Doesn't matter if it's jumping off the corporate ladder or walking away from the alter.

In the space after the un-brainwash, you'll find many things. New ideas, the ability to understand your history, and the opportunity to rest.

If you recognize that your mind is being constantly assaulted by someone else's idea of the world, it's okay to search for peace. Listen to others, take pleasure in reading new ideas, and find the power to think critically.

And if you need someone to talk to, we're here.


Services from People Leave Cults

People Leave Cults offers a variety of services to help both cult survivors and the families/friends of cult-involved people. 

We invite you to explore whichever offering fits your needs at the links below. 

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