Leaving a Cult

Leaving a cultic group seldom happens overnight. It is more like a slow creep, or, like Daniel Shaw writes, “death by a thousand cuts.” Sometimes ethical transgressions pile up, and one becomes too many. Other times, one extremely traumatizing event shatters the fantasy. Leaving a group in which one invested years and internalized the teachers’ words and ideology can be very difficult, even traumatic.

Laving a cult can also be confusing. There is a conflict between the cherished core beliefs (internalized group belief) and the new evidence that contradicts it. The internal conflict is called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult that believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience,” committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).” (McLeod, 2018)


In favor of the group’s belief: When we were in Morningland and observed or experienced things that were contrary to what the Gopis or Sri taught or even unhealthy, we dismissed the evidence. We justified what we saw: “The Gopis know what they are doing, and it is always for everyone’s spiritual advancement.” If we heard of the Gopis’ wrongdoing, the validity of the message and evidence were dismissed as a “disgruntled ex-member who did not get what they wanted.” This is what the Gopis told us. The narrative always justified the leader’s actions, and the leaders (Gopis, Sri, Donato) could never do anything wrong or unethical. When someone left the group, the act alone shook the group’s cohesion. The leaders intensified the group identity, which helped strengthen the belief in its mission. All new evidence contradicting the belief was dismissed and rejected to preserve the group’s cohesion.

In favor of new evidence: We left the group when the evidence threatened our psychological survival. It could no longer be justified. The events were too painful or harmful to endure and shattered our beliefs. Cognitive dissonance was resolved as we began thinking and processing the new evidence, even when it meant sacrificing the formerly long-cherished belief because it preserved our psychological well-being.


When processing is too painful: Some who left found themselves alone without professional support or a supportive friend to share and process their experience with. Friends or family members who were not in a cult do not always understand cultic experiences and may even judge them for having spent years in a “weird group.” This can only increase pain, shame, or guilt and does not contribute to one’s healing process. Instead, people in this situation often avoid thinking about what had happened and push “all that stuff” aside, never to think about it again.

One of the reasons many of the people who leave cultic groups choose not to identify their own experience as abusive is because to do so would mean acknowledging an extraordinary degree of grief over the loss of a deeply cherished, idealized attachment connected to their most cherished hopes about themselves and about life, along with the unleashing of an extraordinary degree of shame about their own self-deception, shame, and rage about the amount of abuse they were willing to endure for the sake of maintaining their tie to the leader.” (Shaw)

When processing is the only way: Others choose to think about what had happened and engage with the educational material – reading books, watching movies on the topic, and seeing how their experience matches the experiences of others in similar groups. This process can be helped by professional or social support (someone who shared the cult experience). Sharing their experiences can help restore one’s sense of reality and security in themselves (in a cult, members were typically not allowed to share their experiences and thoughts). Consequently, the group’s beliefs are greatly minimized or fully discarded, freeing the person to rediscover their identity.


After leaving a group, one of the greatest challenges is adjusting to the world outside. Essentially, everything in one’s life is subject to change and readjustment:

  • Rebuilding old relationships and making new ones
  • Relating to people more authentically, without a hidden agenda (recruitment)
  • Securing one’s livelihood and planning for old age
  • Rediscovering one’s values
  • Creating a new lifestyle based on one’s values

One of the most hopeful elements in post-cult recovery is knowing that at some point in the future, our lives will be stable and even enjoyable again. Some former members found other spiritual paths that were not culty or guru-based and continued their practice. Others chose to forsake the spiritual and embraced philosophy. And some plunged into the scientific fields, embracing critical thinking as a new shield against personal or group biases. The end result for most former members is the satisfaction with who they became and the lives they have rebuilt.

Mantika, June 2023

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Cognitive Dissonance

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