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Why Do People Leave Cults?

Updated: May 22

It might seem obvious why people leave cults.

But then again, it might not.

This article is the finale of a three-part series. In the first two, we discussed:

  1. People join cults for a lot of reasons.

  2. People stay in cults for a lot of reasons.

Understandably, we'll cover why people leave cults in this installment.

Spoiler alert:

People leave cults for a lot of reasons.

Join us as we discuss why cult members finally call it quits with their group.
While that decision might seem like the end of the journey, cult recovery (or reintegration with the broader world) is just the beginning.

Trigger warnings: mentions of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse)

Prologue: The Shelf Breaks

A common saying in the post-cult, post-religion, and religious deconstruction worlds is when a former member talks about their "shelf breaking."

To our knowledge, this comes out of the ex-Mormon community. Credit where credit is due.

The idea is that people - especially cult members who are being coerced - have an internal "shelf" where they put things they don't like about the cult. A non-cult example might be tolerating your neighbor's loud music because they only play it when they cut your grass. Annoying but not unbearable.

The thing is, over time, the items on the shelf can pile up. Get messy. You may even have to add a few heavy items in there - compromises you make with yourself when something isn't quite right, but you still want to believe.

For many former cult members, there's usually a time when it just goes too far, and they can no longer reconcile some aspect of the cult with their reality.

That moment is when the shelf "breaks" under the heavy load of these ideas.

The reality of life is too incompatible with the compromises and concessions they've made for the group.

This article is an exploration of some of those moments.

It may only ring true to some experiences, though, so if you're a former member and don't see your reason on the list - contact us - we'd love to add more to this.

Reason # 1: Disillusionment With the Leader or Ideology

For many, a cult leader is a massive aspect of the cult experience, and with good reason. A charismatic leader's ability to manipulate and control is a huge element of why a cult member might join or stay.

It stands to reason that a breach in a cult leader's façade can destroy the illusion of perfection, religious superiority, success, or another central element of the cult leader's persona.

Similarly, finding flaws, inconsistencies, or observing non-participation in the group's ideology can cause some cult members to turn away from their group.

A hypothetical example would be a religious movement that preaches love for people experiencing poverty while stealing funds from a food bank charity.

However disillusionment strikes, cult involvement can quickly unravel for members who see issues in the group.

Reason # 2: The Cult Members Get Bored

Would you believe that cults can be boring?

Try meditating for 12 hours and see how bored you get. I can wait.

Back already? See!

A lot of people join cults because of excitement or buzz. They get caught up in a movement and allow themselves to be swept along in the action - like a new relationship or an ice cream sandwich.

The thing is, the buzz can't last forever.

Eventually, it calms down. The grind sets in.

The recruitment process gets longer, and discussions with potential converts get harder. Things get weird, maybe - and you get a little bored.

It might be years before you even look back and think - wow, was that a cult? huh.

Reason # 3: Health

If you've read our articles on why people join cults and why people stay in cults, you know that sometimes a coercive group can help a person improve their physical health.

While it's hard to say why exactly, the physical or psychological readjustment brought on by joining a group can benefit some people.

It could be an exercise regimen, severe restrictions on diet or behavior, or some other change; a cultic group can help some people change the trajectory of their life.

But not everyone.

And even for those who do see benefits - they may not last forever. Or they may go too far and jeopardize your health in other ways.

An enforced and unsustainable lifestyle can causes health problems in other areas. Whatever the underlying health concern is, some ex-cult members have their health to thank for their eventual departure from the group.

This is another instance where former members find themselves looking back and thinking "was that a cult?".

Reason # 4: They Miss Family or Friends

Some groups require that adherents cut off relationships in the outside world. This can include family, lifelong friends, or even significant others.

It makes sense that a cult member who has cut off meaningful relationships would start to miss their loved ones. It's part of why People Leave Cults offers intervention for friends and family members - they have a unique relationship.

We talk more about how family and friends can help a loved one leave a group on our blog, so check out our free resources, and don't hesitate to reach out and ask us questions!

Reason # 5: New or Changing Relationships

How we interact with the people around us impacts our lives. Community plays a role in why people join or stay in groups, so it's reasonable that it can drive someone to leave.

From a bird's eye view, two categories of relationships might impact a cult member's decision-making - those inside the group and those outside the group.

Let's briefly discuss each.

Relationships within the group:

When a cult member notices that their in-group relationships are suffering, it can prompt them to re-evaluate their involvement with that group.

Some of the events that might shake up in-group relationships include:

  • Being made a scapegoat

  • Being a victim of an internal rumor mill

  • Constantly receiving criticism or feedback that is harsh or unwarranted

  • Being given jobs that no one else wants or that are demeaning/dehumanizing

  • Loss of a significant other within the group

This can be accented, adjacent, or absent to relationships outside the group.

Relationships outside of the group:

Having a safe space to land is essential for people thinking about how to leave a cult. If relationships outside the group show signals of safety and respect, then cult membership can lose some of its appeal.

A few of the ways that external relationships can impact a group member include:

  • Developing a new intimate relationship with a non-member

  • Rekindling a safe relationship with someone outside of the group's influence

  • Death or illness in a loved one outside the group

  • Outside intervention from concerned parties

While not exhaustive, we hope these lists give a general understanding of how relationships can help someone escape cultic environments.

Reason # 6: Further Involvement Is Too Difficult

Cult involvement is not an easy life.

It's been said that cults don't attract weak or unintelligent people.

Sometimes cults take our best and brightest.

The inclusion criteria of most groups require a sharp and trainable mind, which can attract capable individuals from all walks of life.

Even though these individuals may be intelligent, wealthy, attractive, and highly disciplined, they may still find the rigor of cultic groups to be too much.

Cultic environments rely on coercive persuasion techniques that amount to psychological abuse.

Over time, living in a state of psychological distress can lead to complications - socially, health-related, and otherwise. This can also be true for those born and raised in groups.

For many cult members, involvement comes with both psychological and spiritual costs - and some are victims of physical or sexual abuse as well.

When these events occur, further participation in the group presents an increasingly insurmountable challenge to individual well-being. It only makes sense that cult members would choose to depart under such circumstances.

Reason # 7: Cult Intervention

People sometimes leave cults because of cult intervention - a strategic and ethics-oriented way to get a friend or family member out of a dangerous group.

We discuss cult intervention (and how it differs from cult deprogramming) elsewhere on our website.

To briefly sum it up: Cult intervention involves working with mental health professionals and cult-aware experts to encourage and empower voluntary exit from a group. Cult members are not forced, coerced, or put in any danger. Learn more at the links above!

Reason # 8: They Get Kicked Out or Shunned

Some ex-cult members never intended to leave.

Instead, they find themselves suddenly thrust out of their cult by the group.

Forced removal from your group - and even a period of shunning - is a practice that's usually reserved for people deemed to be among the "worst" offenders against group ideals.

It is a cruel practice that results in former members losing their communal identity instantly.

Victims of shunning or forced removal from their group are often left holding the bag of sudden rejection atop typical psychological and spiritual abuses.

They may also face recovery feeling alone, further complicating their internal situation.

Reason # 9: Something "Clicks" (New Knowledge, Understanding Patterns of Abuse, etc.)

Understanding psychological manipulation isn't straightforward when you're a cult member.

But that doesn't mean everyone ignores all the signs.

Some former cult members ask questions (possibly even for years) about the practices, ideas, and decisions their group made.

They also ask questions about the outside world to see how it stacks up.

Some of the discoveries they might make include:

  • The group psychological abuse scale

  • How a cultic group uses mind control on its members.

  • Discovering contradictory information about the group, cult leaders, or doctrine.

  • Discovering external media coverage, a scientific study, or other outside influences that go against group teachings or beliefs.

  • Performing a deep study of their beliefs and finding inconsistencies with historical documentation.

The list goes on and on.

In other words, sometimes people leave because the shelf breaks. Yes, we've come full circle. It's a fitting description of what it feels like to have your worldview fall apart.

All that's left is to pick up the pieces.

People Leave Cults

Former cult members leave their groups for any number of reasons.

Wherever you are in your journey, rest assured that it takes time to reframe a cultic experience. You are not alone, and your time spent inside the group does not devalue who you are.

Regardless of what launches them forward, many cult victims need help. Information, resources, community, and compassion.

That's why People Leave Cults shares posts like this - to help cult victims and their family members find helpful and validating ideas.

If you read this post and didn't see your reason - contact us! We'd love to know how we can add more.


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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