Recovery After Exiting
a Spiritually Abusive Group
Those involved in a totalistic Bible-based cult become enmeshed in the government of that organization. Totalistic groups use varied forms of thought reform, manipulation, coercion, deception, peer pressure, guilt, fear, phobias and threat tactics which lead members to absolute obedience and non-questioning. Deceptive ministers distort the Bible (heavily using the Old Testament Law) to enhance their control on the unsuspecting and vulnerable. Due to the implementation of these deceitful tactics, recruits often suffer a loss of identity, will, and the ability to think critically. Members may no longer control their own life due to the reasons mentioned above; instead, following the loss of their critical thinking skills, they surrender their life to the authority and direction of the authoritarian leader.
Upon exiting, the survivor may struggle with many recovery concerns trying to repair themselves from the damage and personal loss due to spiritual, emotional, financial and often physical abuse. The control of information, propaganda tactics and secrecy causes critical thinking skills to cease which creates conformity. They may suffer from a loss of will and hope, along with inferiority, shame and guilt. The group leaves exiters' thinking skills impaired and the decision-making abilities dormant. Dependency on the group is fostered. Disassociation replaces interpersonal skills. These are just a few of the ramifications from cultic involvement.
Traumas After Exiting:
Many survivors of an exploitive group experience to some degree emotional trauma in the form of phobias, guilt, low self-worth, deep depressions, complex post traumatic stress, inability to concentrate, anger and fear. They also can experience "floating," also known as trancing out and dissociation. Floating inhibits recovery from the devastating experience. On top of all that, the survivor must get reincorporated into the "real world." For many this can be life-threatening.
The implications resulting from WCG involvement can be devastating. Totalistic, abusive groups can cause tremendous trauma, which is considered the deepest emotional pain felt. The feelings are analogous to being incested or raped. Individual lives may be shattered; however, these effects do not need to continue throughout life. A member had no choice when recruited, but does have a choice in the healing process.
Healing and recovery begins when you make a personal decision to take back your life by verbalizing the emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, and all too often, sexual abuse inflicted on you. This is easier said than done to regain your voice, but is possible to accomplish.
Each survivor has the opportunity to sort out the past and find the answers to his/her questions that will allow healing from the emotional trauma and complex post-traumatic stress. The traumas are caused from the deception, coercion, manipulation, guilt, fear, abuse and the array of mind control techniques which prevailed through the organization.
Many who do not challenge what they were in, and who do not confront the denial, often find themselves in another deceptive, mind-manipulating group, or floundering.
If you have been victimized by being disfellowshipped or abused in any way, don't keep the pain to yourself. You are not alone. Survivors do not have to succumb to the control and fear tactics that once permeated their life. You are now free--to think, question, make your own choices, and speak up. Please feel free to tell your personal story. Get connected to people who have been there and can relate to your situation.
Recovery consists of breaking down every facet of manipulation and building a solid foundation on truth. It takes time and must be complete in order to resume a functioning and positive life. It encompasses the following:
Education on mind control and exploitive groups
- Evaluate your involvement. Why were you recruited? What attracted you to the group? What was going on in your life at that time? Was the verbal abuse and control familiar with what you experienced in your family background?
- Evaluate the group intellectually and theologically. How does the group you were in compare to the thousands of other abusive groups? Understanding the phenomenon of such groups is the only protection from re-recruitment into another one with the same characteristics.
- Scrutinize the group's ethics. Where does the money really go? Learn the methods of mind manipulation used by the group. Investigate the group's practices of deception, manipulation, persuasive techniques, etc. Research the group's history and its leaders. For those striving to discern truth from deception, it is important to read the OIU Newsletters.
- Understanding thought-reform and propaganda techniques is very important and will help you to see that even though you made a choice to go into the group, you were deceived (along with many others) for the purpose of being exploited. Think about what your vulnerabilities may have been at the time you were recruited. Although your motives were no doubt sincere in wanting to serve God, those good intentions were used against you.
- Understand how the founder of the group distorted the Scriptures in order to control, coerce and exploit others. Read books about spiritual abuse.
Questions About Recovery (From our Q&A)
Exiters often have times when they feel like going back into the group. That is one reason why it is recommended that they stay away from any literature that the group puts out. They may feel the "high" of the group, or may wonder if they were wrong for leaving and question if the group might have been "the true church" after all. This is called "floating" and it is important to try and pinpoint what triggered the episode and to recognize any loaded language involved. The trigger could be visual, verbal, physical, etc. Cognitive focusing is helpful at this time.
Understanding Mind Control and Exploitive Groups (many articles)
Therapeutically Speaking (From OIU Newsletter #1, pt. 2)
Education: the Key to Recovery (From OIU Newsletter #2)
Cognitive Dissonance (From OIU Newsletter #4)
Exiting a high demand, exploitive group creates deep losses, including loss of identity, loss of trust and loss of hope. After-effects such as depression, anxiety, anger, floating, dissociation, fear phobias, isolation, loneliness, grief, physical ailments and lacking feeling are common and will pass in time. The following section will cover specifics in regard to emotional and spiritual healing:
Feelings from hurtful stimulus were not permitted to be expressed in an emotionally abusive system. Writing has been found to be very helpful to survivors of abuse and enables you to process your thoughts by getting them out of your head and down on paper where you can reflect and make sense of them.
If memories become too painful while writing (child survivors may experience feelings of rage, intense sadness and fear), it may be necessary to seek out a supportive, safe person; i. e., an understanding therapist who is knowledgeable with abusive religious cults and/or complex post traumatic stress disorder. An understanding counselor is especially recommended if you begin to have memories of being sexually abused, or are experiencing frequent and overwhelming nightmares and flashbacks. They should be willing to listen, validate and empower you; not try to control you or tell you to "get over it."
Where Do the Feelings Go? (covers processing painful thoughts; includes a section on: "How Do I Go About Writing and What Do I Write About?")
Personal Writings About My Experience With "God's Church" (covers exiting, abuses, deceit, and reflections)
Writing about (and working through) these emotions can often cause a reemergence of problems that were never dealt with before joining the group; i. e., an unresolved grief, death of a loved one, addictions, personal problems, loneliness, abandonment, poor relationships, etc. During this time it is helpful to have a therapist that is knowledgeable with trauma, mind control and abusive groups.
We can never recover all we lost, and while we need to grieve those losses, we must first acknowledge those losses.
Try to network with others that have exited and who have gone through similar experiences. Healing takes place in the context of non-controlling relationships and connection with others who will support you, believe you, and validate your experiences. Those who are further along in their healing, and who are supportive, can be especially helpful.
If you raised children in an Armstrong group, you may be carrying a lot of guilt. Think about making a choice to talk to your children about what they (and you) were involved in, letting them know you were terribly deceived and are genuinely sorry for the pain it has caused. Indeed, it will benefit everyone if all can talk things over and eventually forgive each other. Thankfully, God is a forgiving God. In turn, we must forgive ourselves.
Realize that false cognitive scripts were deeply engrained in your young children's minds. Their self-perceptions were greatly distorted. Experts who have worked with traumatized children who grew up in destructive cults say the most important things these children need, upon removal from the group are: order, predictability, structure, nurturance, and protected time.
In other cases, your grown children may be involved in a life of alcoholism, illegal drugs, etc., or may have cut completely off from you. First realize that it is not up to you to try and get them straightened out. They must seek professional help in order to recover.
Start encouraging your children, validating them, seeing the best in them, taking an interest in their lives, and doing things with them now. It may take several years to have a closer relationship with them, but demonstrating your love and acceptance and supporting them is the best thing you can do. When individuals are willing and ready to change, there is always hope for a better future. With prayer, patience, kindness and the grace of Jesus many things can be overcome and healed.
Any Ideas to Help Children Overcome Fear of Armstrong Teachings? (includes several letters)
If you were born or raised in the WCG, PCG, or any abusive offshoot, you probably never had a normal, happy childhood. You may not have been given any opportunity to have autonomous thought, and your lives were regulated. Most child survivors feel that they don't fit anywhere and don't know who they are. Many also have suffered a lot of needless guilt, phobic fears, low self-worth, shame, and even abuse. They often have difficulty making decisions, trusting those in authority, and developing skills, especially social skills. There is additional helpful material on Raised in Worldwide Church of God, Philadelphia Church of God & Offshoots.
Know that what was done to you can't stop you from re-building your life now. As you start making your own decisions, living the way you know is best for you, and understanding that you are worthwhile and have something unique to offer others, then you will lose that feeling of being different and ashamed. Each human has talents and gifts that are unique. Each has their own interests and their own personality that they were born with. And no one any longer has the power to ruin or curtail your future that you have in front of you. The best revenge is to recover and become happy and productive.
It is very common for exiters (especially those who were raised inside) to not feel any type of spiritual connection after exiting due to the spiritual abuse and Scripture twisting they endured. If you went into the group as an adult, you can experience an intense spiritual betrayal and shattering of your faith. Regaining trust will take much time.
If you are suffering depression (which is common after exiting an abusive, mind manipulating group), you can feel that God is not listening, doesn't care, or isn't there. As a result, you might have a tendency to blame yourself and think you need to "do something" to bring God closer. Understand that this is a holdover from the group's teachings. God is always there for us even when we don't think so. He understands everything we are struggling and suffering with and will comfort and encourage us. Nothing can take us out of His hand.
Child survivors who were taught a harsh, demanding, punitive "God" have great difficulty understanding what the real God is like and may not be able to open a Bible for a long time. This also is true with those who were recruited as adults. It helps to separate the word "religion," "church" or "government of God" from God Himself and realize that the "God" of the WCG was only a god of Herbert Armstrong's imagination in order to deceive, control and exploit. The true God of love was revealed through Jesus who desires to have eternal, loving fellowship with us and who brought healing and rest to the afflicted. We are saved by faith in Him, through grace, and nothing else.
Spiritual abuse in the group was intense; therefore, spiritual abuse and tactics used by mind manipulating groups to distort the Bible to support their agendas must be recognized. (Our Booklist gives a list of several recommended books.) The foundational lies that were programmed into our mind about ourselves, the group, and the Bible must be uncovered and replaced with the truth of the Word of God. A sensitive Christian therapist who uses cognitive therapy and is knowledgeable with trauma, controlling, abusive religious groups, and the effects of thought reform can be helpful.
Also see: What Were the Lies and What is the Truth? (replacing HWA's fear-based statements with the truth from the Word of God)
You may never feel that you are like other Christians 100%, but you can come to the place where you see that you don't have to and to know it is okay. The important thing is to do what feels best for you and to not push yourself. Take time out to rest.
Many exiters have struggled with various spiritual bondages and strongholds. Some were even involved in occult activities before going into the high demand group. Being delivered from these things is an important part of becoming free in Christ. When we come to the place where we can see that the group we were in wasn't of God, but was instead a destructive, totalistic group and that the founder was a hypocrite and con artist who caused members to identify himself with God in order to control and exploit them, we can choose to renounce our cultic involvement and any occult involvements that we may have been entangled with in the past. Sample prayers are at: Prayers for Freedom From Spiritual Strongholds (also includes moral issues). You may feel that you want someone to pray with you, or you may decide to pray by yourself. These prayers should not be construed as some kind of ritual that will bring quick healing, but they have been found to be very effective in setting others free of emotional ties with destructive, totalistic groups and in breaking spiritual strongholds. (A knowledgeable therapist should be sought out for serious or ongoing problems, such as addictions. (See section below: What about professional therapy?)
Sometimes it's possible to reconcile with our extended family, but other times it isn't. Try to remember that reuniting with our families doesn't depend on how close you are to God, the measures you take, or how hard you try. You can extend your love and be willing to communicate about everything, but if any of them have substance abuse problems, or an inability to relate, they will need to take responsibility themselves to get help. You cannot solve their problems for them and it is not up to you to fix them. Even if they do say they are sorry, it is okay to be cautious and to set boundaries.
The love, acceptance and belonging you needed while in the group was not unconditional. Only God's love and acceptance is unconditional. You do not need to continue to try and please others who only end up abusing them and never changing. If you grew up in what may have been considered a dysfunctional family (before you became a member), you did not realize that you were worthwhile even though you were imperfect, immature and vulnerable..
If you are having a very difficult time with all this, perhaps even feeling deep anger and resentment toward your extended family for their past lack of love toward you and their present unwillingness to understand what you have experienced (even attempting to place guilt, blame and shame on you), consider receiving professional Christian counseling from someone who is knowledgeable with abusive, high demand religious groups; especially one who can help you to break the emotional ties and to be able to establish other good relationships in your life.
If you feel there were members or loved ones that you hurt by your actions, or words and that you want to ask their forgiveness for, you can consider contacting them. This could be in person, by a letter, or on the phone. However, if you feel that contacting them will make things worse, or if you do not know where they are, realize that if you are a Christian, God, through Christ, has already forgiven all your sins, past present and future.
If you taught things that you now know gave others a very wrong impression of God (for instance if you are a former minister, elder or deacon), and which caused sorrow, if is impossible to make it right with others, know that God has forgiven you because of what Christ Jesus has already done for you in His death, burial and resurrection.
The deceptive group used guilt manipulation in order to control its members, so you have undoubtedly been made to feel you are the guilty one and you probably feel defective in some way. It was the group that was defective, not you. Try to forgive yourself of whatever you felt you did or said. In many cases we can't undo what was done. We were enmeshed in a very dysfunctional system, and we were under duress to do many of the things we did, but we don't have to continue to carry a load of false guilt. You are a unique human being with gifts and talents that God has endowed you with and He loves you. The Lord Jesus took all your guilt and shame upon Himself when he died for the sins of the world. Let Him set you free from all guilt.
An End to Guilt (Excellent message that focuses on the unconditional love of God and gives a clear understanding of grace)
Coming to the place where we can say we forgive those who abused us can take a long time and should never be rushed. Forgiveness doesn't mean that we ever will condone the evil that was done to us, but to recognize that these abusers don't have any power over us anymore; likewise, we don't have any power over what justice is to be ministered out to them. To forgive doesn't mean we must forget. We will never forget what we suffered. Nor does it mean that we must refrain from exposing them, for in speaking up others are warned. Forgiving also does not mean that we must reconcile with those who abused us. Our abusers were sinners who used the power of thought reform in order to control us. Some abusers were outright evil. Child survivors, especially, should realize that they are adults now and their abusers do not have that same power over them anymore. Forgiveness (which is a choice) entails turning the perpetrators, including the entire evil system, over to God, knowing that in His time, and in His way, He will surely administer justice. In the meantime, we can choose to not let them have the rest of our life by allowing them to control our emotions and ruin our future happiness.
When trying to recover and heal from a high demand, abusive group, be sure and pace yourself. Recognize when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and finding it very difficult to read and retain information. This is a very common symptom and will pass in time. It doesn't mean you have lost your memory. Move away from anything that is making you feel burdened, pressed or squeezed into a mold. Realize that being under a lot stress or experiencing triggers will cause symptoms to increase. Take a break when you need it, and do whatever you have to in order to stay away from relationships that get in the way of your healing process. This may mean distancing yourself from those you know who are still in the group. Instead, take time out to rest, go on a walk, listen to music, draw, write poetry, remind yourself you are now living in the present and they can't control you anymore--whatever helps you. Don't forget to include a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (taking added supplements for stress if necessary). Get adequate sleep, exercise, and times of relaxation, as neglecting these things can affect how you feel physically and emotionally.
If you feel you need further help in resolving depression, relational problems, abuse from your past, guilt, phobias, anxiety, fears, shame, addictions, etc., don't hesitate to seek competent help from a professional therapist who understands mind control, abusive groups, and trauma, or who is willing to educate themselves on such.
In addition, don't rule out health problems. Realize that long term emotional stress such as anxiety, grief, fear, guilt, anger, etc. can be very draining, even exhausting the endocrine glands, along with creating nutritional deficiencies. This needs to be taken into consideration along with therapy.
If you weren't raised in the group, it is very common in the latter stages of recovery to experience a re-emergence of prior emotional hurts, such as unresolved grief, death of one's parents, abandonment or loneliness from the past, personal problems, unsatisfactory relationships, or drug, alcohol and/or other addictions in the family. A good counselor can help you work through these things, yet at the same time should never try to control you, attribute your symptoms exclusively to problems prior to entering the group, or blame you for being deceived, but will instead empower you and listen to you. If the counselor is not adequately trained to help you, their therapy could end up harming you. All your questions should be answered fully before you begin therapy. The book Captive Hearts, Captive Minds (Freedom & Recovery From Cults & Abusive Relationships) by Madeline Tobias and Janja Lalich has a good section on therapeutic concerns and choosing a counselor in chapter 12.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: If you are struggling with any kind of destructive behavior; i. e., suicidal behavior, or self-injury, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been found to be helpful. This kind of therapy helps survivors to use tools to control moods that can go out of control very rapidly. As one child survivor (who underwent DBT) related to us: "When you feel powerless, you feel hopeless. Once you realize that you have the power to change things in your life, you will not feel you have to wait for people to be good to you. You have the power to choose a better option."
EMDR: A number of survivors who have suffered trauma say they have been helped with a new procedure called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Notice: Therapists trained in complex trauma-related conditions (including mind control trauma) have told us that if the survivor is dissociative (DID), this therapy may cause a flooding of memories. Please discuss this, and any other questions, with a qualified therapist. [offsite links]
Surviving (Written for those who have suffered extreme abuse and who are having a difficult time recovering.)
Links (Includes trauma & PTSD resources)
This is the last stage of healing. While you still may miss friends left in the group, you will find yourself talking less about your group involvement and becoming more involved in your job, new relationships with others, hobbies, and fresh interests of a personal nature. It takes much courage and strength to start a new life for ourselves and to break free of the group's mind control and emotional and spiritual abuse. Allow ample time for recovery, but remember that you have developed a lot of strengths and skills as a result of what you have suffered. Make a note of these positive things about yourself. Discover your creative abilities which may have been put on hold, or never fully appreciated, while in the group.
Upon exiting, many individuals learn of a new freedom and opportunity for growth which they were never able to experience while in the organization, a freedom to question and research the history of Worldwide Church of God and its splinter groups, and to educate yourself on mind manipulating groups, without fear or guilt for reading "outside material." As you grow in your new life and also in your spiritual understanding of the true Lord Jesus of Scripture, His wonderful grace and unconditional love and acceptance of you, many burdens will be lifted off of you. You will feel free to be yourself and begin developing your gifts and interests again. This can be the beginning of a new life that you choose for yourself. While recovery takes a long time (often years), this experience doesn't need to destroy you or take away your hope for a better life. You can regain your creativity and your individuality that God originally gifted you with, and you can become a stronger and more discerning person than before your involvement.
By D. M. Williams (some words at beginning submitted by L. A. Stuhlman, founder of ESN)
Exit & Support Network™
March 27, 2012
Last updated February 16, 2016