Dec 16, 2012

How Can Cults Harm People?

There are a wide variety of cults. Different people respond differently to the same environment. Therefore, not all people who have been in cults are harmed by the experience. But some, perhaps a majority, are harmed. Part of ICSA’s mission is to help these people, so our focus here is on this subgroup of cult members.

The testimonies of the thousands of people who have sought help after a cult experience suggests that the core of their subjective experience is a sense of abuse and betrayal. The group promised them something wonderful, but ultimately they received disillusionment and pain.

As noted in our answer to the question, “Why do people leave cults,” exiting a cult can involve much pain and suffering, in part because the group environment is so demanding and in part because the group becomes a part of the person’s identity.

Departure, then, is a form of psychic trauma. Indeed, many former cult members have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
However, even for those who don’t reach the level of PTSD, the pain can be severe. Among the problems ex-cult members have reported are (adapted from Giambalvo):


  • Sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected.
  • Depression.
  • Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life.
  • Guilt.
  • Anger.
  • Alienation.
  • Isolation.
  • Distrust.
  • Fear of going crazy.
  • Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen.
  • Tendency to think in terms of black and white.
  • Tendency to spiritualize everything.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Embarrassment
  • Employment and/or career problems.
  • Dissociation.
  • Floating/flashbacks.
  • Nightmares.
  • Family conflicts.
  • Dependency issues.
  • Sexual problems.
  • Spiritual issues.
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues.
  • Impatience with the recovery process.
Even with professional help, it is not uncommon for ex-members to require one or two years to work through their problems and re-establish an identity and sense of purpose apart from their group.