Totalitarian sects have been often in the spotlight following cases of massive suicide of cultists or terrorist attacks carried out by members of Aum Shinrikyo. Just a short while ago the term “sect” stood for a small religious group in opposition to the official church. A variety of religious beliefs of limited popularity, nothing special about it…
Nowadays the public more frequently raise the issue of destructive or totalitarian sects, referring to any organization with a high level of manipulation being one of its main characteristics. At this point psychologists normally mention such techniques and methods as “mind control” and “mental violence.” The man in the street may as well file them under the category of “brainwashing.” Today’s sects are not necessarily religious organizations; they can be political or even commercial. For example, a recent surge in popularity of psychological training seminars and group therapies gave rise to a variety of “psychotherapeutic sects.” In actuality, most different sects look very much alike in terms of an impact they have on their members.
What sort of people usually joins the sects?
Only the weak-willed are thought to join the sects, according to a popular belief. There are no risks for the “normal” ones. The judgment is rather naïve, to say the least. Sects need to recruit “normal” individuals who have brains and abilities.
Some psychologists argue that people in crisis or transitional phase e.g. teens, recent divorcees or those who just moved to a new town can be easily affected by sects. A person undergoing the series of challenges that life presents becomes highly susceptible to the promises of a better world that appears to be clearly defined and perfectly understood.
According to another viewpoint, sectarians use drugs and hypnosis for the purpose of recruiting.
Yet the reality is much simpler, and more horrible for that reason. Sects use the same techniques as advertisers who get us to purchase some totally useless item. The tricks also resemble those used by a friend who can talk us into lending him a large sum of money. You know, it would be too gross to say “no” straightaway, the folks looked pretty nice and amicable, they were very polite and well-mannered so I accepted their invitation to attend the first meeting and get some hands-on experience…I met lots of happy people out there, and I got carried away etc.
Unfortunately, one has to pay a high price for living among the “happy people.” Numerous psychological studies show that sectarianism causes serious damage to a person’s psyche in the long run. People become incapable of reasoning in a complex way; they speak in clichés and have difficulties while making a most simple decision. In the meantime, they cannot form an unbiased opinion about their own condition; they are unaware of negative changes that took place in their life. Sectarians often suffer from phobias, depression and psychosomatic conditions.
Characteristics of a sect
Sometimes the loved ones and friends cry wolf far too often. Everybody got quite a scare from totalitarian sects, and many people tend to see psychological training seminars or public organizations as sects in disguise. A person’s deep immersion in some kind of hobby, religion or work has often nothing to do with totalitarian sects.
The excerpt from a psychologist’s account on his visit to a sect
“An overly enthusiastic response to my arrival struck me most. The members looked as though they’d been waiting for me for ages. Everybody was flashing broad smiles, which sent shivers down my spine, to be honest. As it turned out, all of them were close friends, and they behaved like some 12-year-olds who like hugging and kissing one another for the whole world to see.
It seems that they started to treat me like their best friend too after a few minutes. The people I’ve never met before kept coming closer to ask me how I felt. They put their arms around my shoulders without displaying a hint of shyness or anything.”
It is quite easy to tell a sect from a normal organization. A group of people behaving strangely is a sure sign of some fishy business.
Totalitarian sects can use a range of techniques and methods for controlling a victim’s lifestyle and mind. To instill complete obedience, a number of methods can be used. The methods designed to deprive a person of his ability to form critical judgments are as follows:
- Constant meditations
- Various techniques used regularly for putting a person into a trance
- Diet restrictions
- Hard work for the benefit of a sect
- Intensive indoctrination
As a result, a person is likely to lose the ability to assess the ideology and practices of a sect; a person ends up completely powerless and cannot put up opposition to orders given by a sect’s leaders.
Members of a sect are tightly bound up in their amazing concept of “us,” which can look very alluring at the beginning, a sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make part of a group of people who are in perfect understanding with one another.
A sense of unity and togethernessdoes not come over as a gift from above; it is carefully bred and instilled in the members on purpose. For example, a new member may be told to confess in public, to denounce his “guilt” in the presence of other cult members so that the boundaries of his personal ego can eventually erode. Group members are told to devote a great deal of their time to the group, the more dangerous the group, the more times it requires. All the regular ties with one’s family, friends and colleagues are severed as a result. The loved ones wake up to a horrible reality one day: their son or daughter etc. has become an “entirely different person.”
What to do if a person gets into a sect
The one who falls victim to a sect is unable to cope with constant stress; he is torn apart by incessant conflicts arising from a daily reality and the cult doctrines. His mind resorts to building another personality, a fake one, in an attempt of self-preservation. The new personality of an “ideal sectarian” meets the requirements to the full in terms of his lifestyle and mental structure.
Step 1: Gain a person’s confidence
For a start, you had better build a neutral relationship with a fake personality. Make an effort trying to ensure a sectarian that you do not mind him sticking to his ideas though your own point of view is different at the moment.
Never disregard the importance of personal safety. Under no circumstances should you agree to attend sectarian gatherings and meetings. You can look through the booklets and have a chat with other cultists, and try to memorize their names and other personal info. Avoid meeting a sect’s leaders. Self-confidence can backfire in this case.
Step 2: put together a support group
It is important to mobilize as many people as possible for a “rescue mission” after defusing a potentially tense situation involving the “pseudo-personality” and other cult followers. Talk to the victim’s loved ones, friends and colleagues. Former members of the group can render help too. They can advise you on the best tactic because they do understand the victim’s way of reasoning.
Doing a proper research into the subject is also important. Gather necessary information regarding mind-control techniques, totalitarian sects, especially the group in question. Share information with all the people who agreed to join forces for the recovery of the victim.
Step 3: find a qualified psychologist
You should start looking for a good psychologist once you embark on a mission. You need to find a real specialist who has experience in counseling members of a sect. Ask your friends around, use the Internet, approach other therapists who may have colleagues working with sectarians.
Step 4: Exiting a sect
The so-called “exit counseling” is one of the most popular methods of helping sectarians kick the habit. Counseling is provided by a psychologist frequently aided by family members, former members of a sect, and theologians or priests at times. It takes a lot of time and effort to get a sectarian to step back into a real life. The process has nothing to do with mysticism or coercion. Moreover, anybody who offers you help and says that he can “save” a sectarian by separating him forcibly from the sect and reprogram him using some kind of hypnosis is a charlatan willing to exploit you family problem and make some fast money out of it.
The “right” psychologist does his best in order to let the person get an earful of opinions from relatives and friends, those who are really concerned about things happening to that person. The psychologist has ways of convincing a sectarian that the latter joined a totalitarian sect after being manipulated by shrewd recruiters who did the same to thousands of other people. The psychologist can bring the person to realize the dangers of a “trap” that can destroy his life eventually. The person is given a number of reasons which help him see the motives for starting the process of rehabilitation.
Exiting a totalitarian sect is just the beginning. The former member will have to spend a long time on the road to recovery; he will have to learn to be the master of his own fate again.
Translated by Guerman Grachev