Human beings are essentially tribal; built to live in close-knit communities. Sadly, most “developed” societies have become so individualistic that we no longer know how to live alongside each other in a meaningful way. Many people join cults and fundamentalist groups in search of friendship and community, because modern life breeds loneliness. For the same reason, leaving can seem terrifying, because of the risk of losing everyone that is dear to you. Suicide rates among ex-cult members are worryingly high, primarily due to social isolation and mental illness.
One of the most agonizing situations is to be awake to the fact that you’re in a cult or high control group, but paralyzed by the fear of becoming absolutely alone if you leave. Thankfully, with the advent of the internet, opportunities to build new friendships now abound. I have made some of my closest friends online, most of whom I have yet to meet in person. It’s amazing how liberating it can feel to be able to chat with someone who has been through similar hurts and can understand what you’re going through in a unique way.
However, it’s also possible to get trapped in a web of angry bitterness, by joining your voices to those who are also hurting and want revenge or “justice”. As you participate online in forums and social networks, you’ll start to notice people who are kind and reasonable, and those who seem to have rather large chips on their shoulders. Tragically, some ex-cult members who claim to follow Jesus can turn out to be judgmental Pharisees who don’t want to hear how you’re doing or open their heart to you; they just want to prove a point and show off their “superior knowledge”.
Of course, it goes without saying that it’s better to avoid such people. You’ll quickly find that debating with them online is like banging your head against the wall, and although you may end up with a splitting headache, they’re probably thrilled to have successfully drawn you into their argumentative web.
Whenever I discover another ex-cult member online who seems to be a warm, genuine and reasonable person, I send them a friendship request. At the same time, protecting my privacy online is important, and when developing friendships with people I’ve never met, this is paramount. I’ve learned to trust my instincts; if I “smell a rat”, or notice something incongruous or out of place, I take steps to avoid making myself vulnerable. In my personal opinion, blocking, muting, unfollowing or “unfriending” people shouldn’t be seen as “rude”, but a wise move at times, when necessary.
Like any other human interaction, reaching out to others online to form supportive friendships requires give and take. I’m always aware that if I contact people regularly to complain to them about all my problems and woes, I may end up becoming a burden or a nuisance. It’s best to attempt to be “slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19), taking an interest in how other people are doing and what they’re going through, in order to build up an honest and genuine friendship.
On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to play the amateur psychologist, listening to people and giving advice when it’s obviously over one’s head. Of course, if you ever hear someone mention a desire to end their life or take other such drastic measures, you need to encourage them to get professional help immediately.
You will meet some people who are happy to talk for hours about themselves and never ask you how you are. This is a sign that they may have a narcissistic personality, which means that they only care about themselves, and are incapable of taking responsibility for their actions or feeling empathy for others. This will make them very unreliable and draining friends. They will want you to solve their problems for them, listen to them at all hours of day and night, while ignoring your needs, concerns and inner pain. Make sure you set strict boundaries with them, so that they don’t start to become a problem.
In some cities there are support groups for people coming out of cults or High Control Groups. You may want to investigate these and see if you can find one which is a good fit for you. If you go along and don’t feel comfortable, don’t feel bad or obliged to continue; it’s understandable that some of these groups are led by inexperienced or immature people who haven’t studied Mind Control or come to a place of peace in their lives.
If you only surround yourself with other ex-members, you may risk getting a little emotionally burnt out or obsessed with the Cult. You’ll probably go through seasons of seeking out the company of these friends, and other periods of wanting to get away from it all. That’s why it’s also important to cultivate meaningful relationships with people who have nothing to do with the group.
Making new friends in the “real world” may seem challenging, but it’s not impossible. It can help to discover what your passion is, so you can find opportunities to meet with others who share the same interests or talents. Joining an evening class, learning a new language, getting into shape or doing volunteering are just a few ways to get to know potential new friends.
However, don’t feel any pressure to share your life story with them immediately; you’ll want to wait until you feel safe to open your heart to them before letting anyone about the spiritual abuse you’ve suffered at the hands of the Cult. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel small or ignorant for what you’ve been through; if people demand to know more details about your life than you are ready to share, get some distance from them.
In any case, it’s good to be prepared for people’s total ignorance, and try not to judge them for it. Sadly, popular culture has the impression that cult members are “gullible” or even “stupid” for belonging to the group and therefore to blame. This is called “victim shaming”, and is extremely damaging and unfair. If you have the chance, you can speak out to contradict these erroneous views, quietly but firmly, to educate people on the reality of Mind Control. If people value you as a person and are willing to listen, you will have taught them an important lesson. Unfortunately, people often repeat hurtful things without considering who is listening or could be affected by it. Never expect total understanding or empathy from anyone, even other ex-members, as you will be sorely disappointed.
On the other hand, you will be lucky enough to meet some rare jewels; people who are highly empathetic and warm hearted, that can relate to your struggles and want to encourage and listen to you. These people are like sparkling diamonds, to be treasured, appreciated and never lost.