Survivors of high demand, totalistic groups most likely have had the following psychological themes used on them by their leaders.

Awareness and education are the only weapons against the subtle recruitment tactics of a deceptive group. Don’t be a target of exploitation and abuse under the guise of religion.

All or most of these must be present to consider a group destructive. When all are present at the same time in a group that stresses separation, and with intentions that are deliberately kept unknown to the recruit, ego destruction may be the result.

Beside each criteria, there will be a brief explanation by ESN showing how these methods of thought reform are used in totalistic groups.

Includes at end: “What is a Destructive Group?”

man with head down on bench at sunset

1. Milieu (Environmental) Control

Control over the members’ flow of information and social interaction. In many groups, there is a “no gossip” rule that keeps people from expressing their doubts or misgivings about what is going on. Members are taught to report those that break the rule, a practice that increases dependence on the leadership. They are sometimes told not to believe anything they see or hear reported by the media.

How Milieu Control is Used in Totalistic Groups:

Information is deliberately held back from members, and many times it is twisted and distorted, even presented with lies. What members might know at any given time varies with their position held in the organization and is controlled at the top of the pyramid structure (headquarters).

Members are told not to trust any other material that is critical of the up, or to read any Christian literature that does not come from their headquarters or leader. Members are not to get close to those who are outside the group, or associate with former members. They are not to observe holidays they consider “pagan” and, in many cases, birthdays. Higher education is frowned upon, as is getting involved in their community. Their time is taken up with holy day or feast observances and many other activities that group members engage in.

When they write, speak or think, it is to reflect only the group’s philosophy and not their own ideas or feelings. As a result, they do not test their own reality around them. Members are taught that to discuss their doubts and misgivings about doctrine, about “God’s Apostle,” “the Elijah,” the local minister, Headquarters, sermons, etc., is “gossip” and/or “lies,” and should not be engaged in. They come to feel they are seeing all things as God sees them. Independent, self-expressing is thwarted.

Members are instructed to keep an eye on the others and let the minister know when another member is breaking the Sabbath, not tithing, listening to rock music, seeing a doctor, or doing any number of things which headquarters has spelled out as sin. Elders and deacons listen in on conversations between members before services to make sure there is no “bad talk.”

If the group or leader is exposed by the media for financial improprieties, immorality, fraud, abuse, violation of the civil law, lying, etc., the members attribute this news to “Satan attacking the Work” and being “Satan’s lies.” The frequent use of the word “attack” is a smokescreen to cause members to focus on Satan and perceived “enemies,” instead of what is really going on.

2. Mystical Manipulation

The group attributes supernatural influences where none are present–attributing an accident to a member that left to be “God’s punishment”–or manipulates situations so they appear spontaneous–members believing that their new feelings and behavior has arisen spontaneously because of joining their new group. The effect is enhanced by the milieu control because dissenting or alternative ideas are not present.

How Mystical Manipulation is Used in Totalistic Groups:

Members are to have a child-like trust in whatever they are taught. The group is considered the “only church where God is working” or the “one true church of God”; therefore, if members do or don’t do something that is required of them, whatever incident that follows is said to be a result of the member’s prior actions.

For instance, if a member and his family decide to leave the Feast of Tabernacles early and not stay through to the “Last Great Day” (or until the sun sets) and the driver ends up getting in a car accident and/or dying, the ministers will tell the members that the reason this happened was because of “disobedience” or “rebellion to God’s government”; that God’s Holy Spirit was at the Feast and not with the member who left, and that is why he had the accident and died.

If a member disobeys in the area of tithing; e.g., not being “faithful” in paying all of his tithes, and then goes backwards financially, he is told that since he has “disobeyed God,” or “not obeyed the Government of God,” God has personally seen to it that he suffered his present financial difficulties and/or financial collapse. He can even be told that he is “putting his salvation in jeopardy.”

Likewise, if members keep the Sabbath, observe Passover, attend the Feast of Tabernacles (and other holy days), give generous offerings and pay all their tithes, and then soon afterwards receive a raise, a new job, new home, new car, etc. then it is all attributed to their obedience in that area.

If someone experiences elevated emotions or a “high” after baptism, or during the Feast of Tabernacles, it is said to be because God is in that experience. If the weather is good at the Feast, it is because “God’s true church” is meeting there for God’s holy days.

Members feel “chosen” and that they are a part of something very important and urgent (i.e., “God’s Work”); that their one true purpose in life is being fulfilled. PCG members believe Mystery of the Ages is the “beam” that holds everything together; that Christ made a personal appearance in the court case, etc. They lose their critical thinking skills and are unable to exercise their independence and own decisions.

3. Demand for Purity

Unreasonable rules and unreachable standards are imposed upon the members. The critical, shaming essence of the cult environment is gradually internalized by the members, which builds lots of guilt and shame, further magnifying their dependence on the group. Individuals easily feel inadequate, but are more willing to submit to this because the milieu control limits critical questioning, and the mystical manipulation validates the group’s rules.

How Demand for Purity is Used in Totalistic Groups:

Perfection and striving against “sin” (which will be defined by the group’s headquarters) is highly stressed, along with fear of what will happen if one fails, or leaves the group. (This manipulation is called fear phobia induction.) Every rule is to be followed exactly; e.g., being on time for Sabbath services, attending every Bible study and holy day, tithing faithfully, having their family under control at all times, avoiding all that is “pagan,” always having a good attitude, giving offerings at every holy day, etc. Every thought is to be brought into captivity and the mind is to be kept “pure.” They are instructed to get every spot and wrinkle out of Christ’s bride (themselves) and to denounce the outside world. This aim of perfection cannot be attained; therefore, there is a constant striving, failing and resultant shame, guilt and fear of punishment. These rules serve to keep members isolated from the outside world and more dependent on the group. It also leads to much emotional and spiritual bondage.

4. Confession

Past and present behavior, undesirable feelings are to be confessed. However, the information gained about you can be used against you to make you feel more guilty, powerless, fearful and ultimately in need of the group and the leader’s goodness. This environment is set up by the unreasonable demand for purity.

How Confession is Used in Totalistic Groups:

This is usually carried out in the form of a ministerial visit. Members are made to confess to things they haven’t done. All prospective members (new converts) receive a visit from the minister where they are probed and questioned about their private life. Members are eager to relieve themselves of their guilt and so will unburden themselves to the ministers. This causes an emphasis on performance. Usually after this “opening up,” the next time the group meets as a whole (usually on a Sabbath) the minister will target the member from the pulpit. No names are mentioned; however the member knows the sermon is directed at him/her in particular. This creates more shame and guilt and causes the member to feel they must try harder to “obey God” in every detail.

Members’ minds are not their own and there is no balance between self-worth and humility. There is a struggle regarding what to reveal and what to keep secret, but members feel a need to confess their thoughts, their experiences and all that the organization considers “sin, rebellion, bad attitudes, selfishness, etc.” Those who open up in private to other members about their struggles (“sins”) are later looked down on and shunned as “less converted,” or “unconverted.” In addition, records are often kept by the minister on those people who come for “counseling”; consequently, new ministers who come into the area are kept up to date.

Confession causes more of a merging with the group and its goals. However, when members end up being made to feel it is all their fault, they end up feeling more hopeless, more guilty and more in need of striving.

5. Sacred Science

The teachings of the group are viewed as the ultimate, unquestionable truth. The leader of the group is likewise above criticism as the spokesperson for God on earth, whose Truth should be applied to all humankind and anyone who disagrees or has alternative ideas is not only irreverent, but also unscientific. Mystical manipulation often lends credence to the group’s doctrine.

How Sacred Science is Used in Totalistic Groups:

The teachings in the group are considered “the Truth” which God revealed only to the leader in this end-time age, and he is considered “God’s spokesman” or “Apostle,” to restore the true gospel. This is constantly taught in sermons and co-worker/dear brethren letters. Members are taught that neither is to be questioned, because it will be the same as questioning God and His “government”; i.e., headquarters. This “Truth” is presented as what the entire world needs to know in order to be set free, and it is what true science reveals to mankind.

If a member becomes interested in other ideas which contradict the group’s truth, it can create guilt and fear.

6. Loading the Language

The group’s language serves the purpose of constructing their thinking and shutting down critical thinking abilities. “Groupspeak” forces members to censor, edit and slow down spontaneous bursts of criticism or opposite ideas. Soon members find it easier to talk among themselves than with outsiders, who are given derogatory names such as “of Satan,” “unconverted,” etc.

How Loading the Language is Used in Totalistic Groups:

The topic of conversation among members often is, “When did you come into the Truth?” or “How did you find out about the Truth?” Other groupspeak is “the Work,” “doing the Work,” “God’s end-time Work,” “the Church,” “the brethren,” “the true Gospel,” “God’s way,” “God’s Government,” “a government problem,” “the Kingdom,” “qualify for the Kingdom,” “Place of Safety,” “the Feast,” “God’s Apostle,” “Headquarters,” “attack from Satan,” “Satan’s lies,” “destroy God’s Work,” “spiritual widow/widower,” “marked,” “the world,” “Laodicean,” etc. If someone outside the group begins talking about something that makes the member very uncomfortable, the member will simply “tune them out” (dissociate/ block out the words), and believe they don’t understand because they don’t know “the Truth.” Since outsiders do not understand exactly what is being spoken of, members feel more comfortable talking only to other members. Also see: Buzzwords (or Loading the Language)

7. Doctrine Over Person

As members rewrite their own personal history or ignore it, they are simultaneously taught to interpret reality through the group concepts and ignore their own experiences and feelings as they occur. Members learn to fit themselves into the group’s way of life and individuals are valued only as they conform to group doctrine.

How Doctrine Over Person is Used in Totalistic Groups:

Doctrine encompasses the entire group experience and is more real and valid than the person and his feelings or experiences. The past is to be considered of no consequence and is to be reinterpreted, or forgotten. If someone was baptized prior to coming into the group, it is considered “invalid.” Miracles or prayers that were answered prior to person coming in contact with the group are considered coincidence, or “of Satan.”

If a member has an experience or feeling that contradicts what the group teaches; e.g., hearing about a Christian outside of the group that received an answered prayer, or miracle, they will reinterpret it by saying that “it wasn’t really an answer,” or “in certain circumstances God may answer an unconverted person’s prayer, but they aren’t a true Christian; they are deceived.”

When a member finds out a minister (or the founder) is doing something opposite than what he teaches; e.g., has committed adultery with someone in the congregation, sexually abused a member’s child, told lies, or gotten drunk, they will block out all negative thoughts and questions, and use the excuse that “the ministers aren’t perfect.” The excuse is that “God will correct him in time.” Members are to continue to follow him regardless, because they must “obey the Government of God.”

A member’s individual potential or identity is subjugated to the group’s doctrine, which is considered “the Truth.” Those who don’t conform are considered “deceived,” “unconverted,” or “of Satan” and are either driven out by shunning or disfellowshipment.

8. Dispensing of Existence

The group’s totalistic environment emphasizes that the members are part of an elite or special group. Outsiders are considered unworthy or unenlightened. This thinking leads to the thinking that their whole existence centers on being in the group. If you leave, you join nothingness. This is an extension of doctrine over person. Existence comes to depend on creed (I believe, therefore, I am), submission (I obey, therefore, I am) and total merger with the group’s ideology. This is the final step in creating members’ dependence on the group.

How Dispensing of Existence is Used in Totalistic Groups:

Members totally and completely believe their group is “God’s only true Church on earth” and only within it is “God’s Truth” preached. They willingly alienate themselves from the activities and people in the “unconverted world” (who are all “deceived and following Satan”), and they allow their entire lives to circle around the organization and “the end-time Work,” which alone gives them their purpose for being born. To think any other way is to experience intensely uncomfortable feelings of confusion, guilt, fear and alienation. If they leave the organization they believe wholeheartedly that they will not only lose “the Truth” and have their minds taken over by Satan, but they will lose the Holy Spirit, lose God, lose their chance for eternal life, lose their purpose for living, and in so many words, be “annihilated.” Their existence has become the group.

~Adapted from Chapter 22: “Ideological Totalism,” Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Jay Lifton.

What is a Destructive Group?

A destructive group is a highly manipulative group or organization which exploits its members and can cause emotional, financial and physical harm. It dictates, in an absolute manner, the behavior, thoughts and emotions of its followers. Coercion and manipulation techniques are used to transform the new recruit into a loyal, obedient and subservient member.

Destructive groups claim a special status, for themselves or their leader, that usually sets them in opposition to mainline society and/or the family.

Destructive groups conceal their real nature and goals from prospective members by adopting deceptive behavior in order to attract new recruits.

All info compiled by AJW
Exit & Support Network™

Recommended Articles:

Mind-Field: Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing (Part 1 of 8)
an eight-part series on how to identify brainwashing in a destructive group or cult. This is based off of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s “Eight-Point Model of Thought Reform.” [offsite link]

Leaders of Totalistic Groups Have These Traits in Common

Prayers for Freedom From Spiritual Strongholds
These prayers are very effective in gaining deliverance from many strongholds and oppression due to involvement in any harmful cult or occult practices.


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Herbert W. Armstrong (many articles)