The exit route out is as wide as the entry point in…
Some may never leave, but I try not to think about that….
One of the most common ways to exit is just to ‘walk away’. Many people just reach a point when they just know they really need to leave. They might not know exactly why they need to leave, but they know, deep within the fiber of their being that they do.
At this point, a person may or may not know they have been part of a cult. They might have come across information that has made them question this possibility (and it has been the inspiration they needed to leave). Or they might not have any idea what a cult even is. There are many different possibilities. The common thread is that they walk. This path has its difficulties, but it also has some blessings. Firstly it is a choice the person is making within themselves and it is likely they have started switching on their critical thinking skills. This is an empowered place to be. However, it comes with deep challenges, challenges that most experience when exiting.
Another exit route out is to be ‘ejected’. Some people, myself at one point included, do not realise how common this is. If a person in the cult is questioning the leadership or the cult’s ideology, in any meaningful way, it can be extremely threatening. If the cult is concerned a person might also influence others in the group this can cause an extreme reaction, that can manifest as the person being forced out. A person who exits in this way will have many obstacles to overcome.
‘Finding out a truth’ about the group or leadership can be a way some people exit. They might discover, either over time or in a very brief moment, something about the cult that exposes a lie. The lie could be something about the leader. The lie could be one the leader is telling. The lie could be about the cult or one the cult is telling. There are a great many things that can expose the lies that permeate the group or the leader at its core.
This lie then exposes a truth.
A truth: that the leader is corrupt, greedy, immoral, abusive or any manner of things characteristically; that the leader has had sex with the members of the congregation, including in infamous cases with the children of the group (even whilst spouting sexual purity); that the group is actually not as harmonious as the public veneer; that the agenda of the group is not what one thought it was when they joined; and…the list could go on…
Something in this experience, is so shocking for a member, that they have to leave. They have to leave to get some breathing space. They have to leave to ground their own reality. They have to leave for their own sanity.
Another way people leave cults is by purely ‘burning out’. ‘Burn out’s’ have given so much to the cult and been exploited in such deep ways, that they are completely spent. They are spent emotionally, psychologically, relationally, spiritually, financially, sexually etc. that they can’t actually go on any longer. They can become cast aside by the cult in tragic and inhumane ways. This exit route out has great difficulties, one being that the member believes this ‘burn out’ is somehow their own fault. Inducing guilt in a follower is a classic technique that is used.
The final exit route out, that I will write about here, is that the group dismembers. This pathway can include a leader dying or changing life direction. Or that the leader does not get enough followers to maintain the group’s cohesion. This situation can lead to a profound sense of bewilderment for followers that exist.
Within each route out there are many similarities, but there are also some differences that need to be considered.
The most pressing similarity is the impact of grief. The majority of people will most likely lose loved ones still within the cult. Cults rarely let followers have relationships, with those that do not belong. This can be extremely painful and should never be underestimated.
I will say it over and over again…
Our relational experience is at the heart of who we are.
Not being attached, yes attached, to those we love is excruciating. We are hardwired to be attached. We need friends, family, peers, colleauges, a lover, a partner…to feel good.
Leaving a cult, in whichever way, will leave us vulnerable to loss. Many people describe this aspect as being the most painful.
In a future post, I will talk more about the similarities each exit route has, as well as the differences. I will also talk about the exit route of ‘intervention’ which can happen for adults and children whose loved ones are at least, to some degree, aware.
As a final note, I would like to suggest that cult exit is similar to the exit routes out for children needing to ‘exit’ the clutches of an alienating parent. There are, in-effect, different routes.
Karen and Nick Woodall, who are the founders of ‘The Family Separation Clinic’, are, in my opinion, the most well-informed practitioners on this topic. Please visit their website: https://www.familyseparationclinic.com/ for more information.
Alexandra Stein is a UK author on the topic of attachment in cults and totalitarian systems. I have read the book, and I highly recommend it:
If you are exiting a cult, please know you are not alone. Although every person exiting a cult is faced with a unique situation, many have also walked the path in its myriad different forms.
There are people who understand and people who empathise…
Walk. Just walk….