Monday, July 02, 2007

TM: Cult or Not?

How do you define a "cult"?

To be honest, as a psychotherapist, I do not concern myself overly much with defining which groups are cultic. My concern is with my clients' understanding of their experiences. I tend to focus on "cultic relationships." I define a cultic relationship as a relationship between any group and an individual in which the individual experiences such high-intensity demands on their time and resources that they experience dysfunction in one or more core life areas: family, friendships, love relationships, career or school, finances, community, law, spirituality, recreation, physical well-being, emotional well-being, and mental well-being. (Using this definition, you could define a "cult" as any organization that knowingly or unknowingly encourages cultic relationships in its members in order to meet the goals of the cult leader(s) for power, sex, money, drugs, or whatever.)

I focus on the cultic relationship because in psychotherapy personal responsibility is a more important concept than blame. "Blame" is largely about the past: Who did what to whom when. "Responsibility" is largely about the future: Who will take the steps necessary for change in a positive direction. In psychotherapy, responsibility always lies with the client. Only the client can make meaningful change to improve his or her life. This is true in treating cult veterans as well. The cult may have encouraged dysfunctional behavior, but only the client can end that behavior and move on.

People who have been in cults frequently have difficulty reaching out to professionals for help. Your group may have treated psychotherapists as taboo. Or perhaps members with health or mental health issues were abandoned by the cult, making it difficult for you to ask for help. Or you may have the natural human tendency to feel you're not the one with the problem, the cult had the problem — so you don't need help. I ask you to consider that people who have the courage to turn to others for help recover most quickly and completely.

You may have heard about "deprogramming" or "exit counseling." Deprogramming was a term that referred to interventions by professional deprogrammers. Usually hired by the cult member's family, deprogramers attempted to forcefully remove members from groups considered cultic. It is largely not practiced anymore. The practice "exit counseling" has replaced deprogramming. Exit counseling is most often a specific procedure for assisting cult members to make the initial decision to leave a cult and to ease them back into mainstream society. It requires special training — and practitioners may have credentials from the International Cultic Studies Association. If you or someone you know needs to work with an exit counselor, I provide links and contact information here.

I am not trained as an exit counselor and do not practice exit counseling. As a licensed psychotherapist, I specialize in working with individuals who have already left their cult but who continue to experience difficulty functioning in their daily lives due to their experiences while in their cult. My clients may experience depression, anger, post-traumatic stress, self-defeating behaviors, difficulties with intimacy with others, financial dysfunction, or other challenges — even years after leaving.

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