25 signs of cult brainwashing (and what to do about it)

As much as we look down on scoff at cults, many people are actually part of cults without even realizing it. 

These organizations are harder to spot because they usually look very different from how they’re portrayed in the media.

Most of the time, cult members don’t wear fancy robes, execute extravagant rituals, or live in a commune in secluded places. They actually tend to blend in pretty well with the rest of society.

While some cults are fairly harmless, others can be destructive. If you’re part of the latter kind, you need to seriously consider leaving.

Still, most cults involve some sort of indoctrination or brainwashing, which is the main reason they’re highly dubious in general.

But how do you actually know if you’re part of a cult, especially a destructive one?

We discuss the 25 biggest signs below.

25 signs a group brainwashes people and is actually a cult

In order for a cult to survive, it needs committed members who stay for the long term (if not for life). The main way they do this is by brainwashing or mind-controlling their members.

Through rigorous indoctrination, thought reform, and coercive persuasion, cults aim to systematically dissolve each individual member’s sense of self.

When that is achieved, it is far easier for them to inculcate their beliefs and make their members partake in what may be sketchy, if not outright harmful endeavors.

1) They target vulnerable people

Cults will often target people in particularly vulnerable states. This typically includes (but is not limited to) people who are:

  • Emotionally unwell;
  • Mentally disturbed;
  • Sick;
  • Facing other circumstantial difficulties.

The cult’s manipulative tactics are particularly effective when used on such people. They also offer a sense of community or support that lonely, struggling individuals might find very appealing.

2) The leader is considered infallible

Cults are extremely hierarchical groups. Leaders and other higher-ups are to be treated with extreme respect—if not outright reverence.

Thus, criticizing them, even if the criticism is valid, is often a big mistake within these cults. 

Members who do so often face dire consequences. So, if you feel like you’re in a group where the leader is almost untouchable–this might be a red flag.

Why does it happen?

Cult leaders are often very charismatic (that’s how they got so many people to follow them). They may claim to be some sort of prophet, messiah, or just generally an enlightened figure who possesses supreme knowledge. 

Or, they can just be CEOs, government leaders, or self-help gurus who use the cult to sell something. (After all, pyramid schemes are very cultish!)

They use their charm and power to restrain critical and logical thinking among members, allowing their authority to remain unquestioned.

3) They demand prioritization of the cult

Cults demand unwavering loyalty and commitment from its members. So much so that they claim to be even more important than family or other personal relationships.

For example, let’s say you’re a member of a cult, but your friends and family aren’t. You will be asked to shun or at least distance yourself from your family. 

They will tell you that they are mere distractions from the cult’s higher, all-important purpose. Or that they are inferior for not being enlightened by the cult’s supposedly secret wisdom.

Members then get estranged from their friends and family, making them even more dependent on the cult.

4) The group looks down on former members

Because a cult often demands life-long commitment and dedication, they will typically look down on former members who left.

A cult will consider itself as enlightened and superior over the rest of society, if not the ultimate bearer of truth. Therefore, their ego will take a huge hit if someone decides to call them out and leave.

They denounce former members within their circles and claim that they were:

  • Immoral;
  • Prideful;
  • Lazy;
  • Or were not good enough for the cult.

If former members speak out and expose the cult’s true nature, they’ll be laughed at and dismissed as bitter or misguided. 

By doing so, they prevent current members from realizing the truth behind the cult.

5) The cult dispises the outside world

When you’re a part of a cult, you’re basically cut out from truthful information and are being fed the facts that cult leaders want you to believe.

This disdain can take many forms:

  • Some cults are paranoid about “the apocalypse”;
  • Some cults look down on the outside world for being ignorant about or disagreeing with the supposed “truth” they believe in;
  • Other cults believe they are morally superior or much smarter than the rest of the world.

These are just the most common examples, but cults can dislike the outside world for a whole host of reasons. 

That’s why they made the cult in the first place: to separate themselves from the rest of society.

6) There is limited freedom 

It’s common for cults to incessantly “check in” with their members or even demand that members ask permission for outside activities. 

Leaders will say that this is to build a close-knit community, but in reality, they only want to make the members heavily dependent on the cult. After all, doing so makes it easier to control them. 

7) Exploitation and abuse are normalized

Cults don’t just limit what you can think and do, they also make you do things that you most likely otherwise wouldn’t.

In the more destructive groups, abuse or exploitation might be normalized within the circle. 

Because members are so devoted and the cult’s or its leaders’ ideologies and commands are infallible, members become brainwashed into accepting such harmful practices.

Some of the most notable examples are the Seventh-day Adventists led by Ellen White or the Mormons church by Joseph Smith.

Another common but frequently justified example is the widespread practice of hazing in college fraternities and sororities. These groups justify harming their applicants by saying that hazing:

  • Makes you a better person;
  • Forges brotherhood and sisterhood;
  • Is a way for you to prove your loyalty and commitment;
  • Is simply a core tradition of the group’s identity.

However, there are many other ways cults abuse their members and other people. Such as:

  • Demanding tithes or regular financial contributions;
  • Requiring women to do sexual favors;
  • Demanding free labor;
  • Child abuse;
  • In more extreme cases, as with religious cults, in particular, calls for violence and mass suicide.

8) Shaming is a key tactic

One tactic cults use to keep their members dependent on the organization is by shaming them. For example, they might denounce and shame your lifestyle and beliefs that you had before you became a part of the cult. 

They will tell you that you’ve lived a life that was immoral or that you were ignorant and weak before joining or guilt you for your past mistakes. 

The cult will then make it seem like the key to living a better life, becoming a better person, or following a higher purpose.

Then the cult will make members follow incredibly strict codes of conduct on all sorts of things, like:

  • What they eat or drink;
  • How they dress up;
  • Their sexual lives and relationships;
  • What media resources do they watch or read;
  • And even who you vote for during elections.

Then, when you follow their rules, they will praise you and make you feel loved and worthy. Your self-esteem and sense of self will then become overreliant on how the cult thinks about you.

9) Members find it hard to leave

Even if some members realize that they’re in a cult (even a destructive one), they might find it incredibly hard to leave. 

Not only are former members shunned, making them afraid of the potential lash back, but they’re now also dependent on the group for many things. They might feel lost in life without the cult.

The towering shadow and influence of the cult simply overpower their self-interest and judgment.

10) New recruits and members are “love bombed”

“Love bombing” refers to the act of consistently and aggressively expressing love and affection. 

Cults will often do this to new recruits and members, especially if they have an intense, rigorous initiation process like hazing in order to counterbalance the distress of undergoing the initiating rites.

They will flatter and compliment new members. They will also be incredibly supportive and hospitable to them. This trains their mind to see the cult as a loving, accepting community they would want to be part of.

This is why cults often target vulnerable people, as their love bombing will be more effective on them. 

This is also why harmful practices such as…

  • Sexual abuse; 
  • Arrange marriages; 
  • Child abuse; 
  • Sex trafficking;
  • Financial extortion;
  • and blackmail;

…are often tolerated or accepted by cult members.

They think it’s worth enduring the suffering in order to keep being part of a supposedly loving community. Or that the cult still loves them despite it—or worse, think they do it as an act of love itself.

11) They reject major religions

Many cults are religious—or, more specifically, based on rejecting the world’s major religions.

They will claim to offer the “true” or the “right” version of a major religion. Members are often ex-members of mainstream religion and have bitterness or resentment toward it.

Thus, the prospect of an alternative religious group might be particularly appealing to them.

So, if a philosophy cultivated by the group you or your friends are in is very similar to one of the major religions but it denies the religions at the same time–watch out.

12) They punish “bad” behavior

After a member’s dependence on the cult is firmly established, they are expected to obey.

They must follow the cult’s leaders, beliefs, and endeavors—or else, they face some sort of repercussion. Leaders will punish “bad” behavior in all sorts of ways, either physically, emotionally, or even financially.

Members will tolerate these strict rules and harsh punishments because they have been led to believe that the cult is doing it out of love or for a divine purpose.

13) The group reeks of elitism

If the group acts like it’s better than the rest of the world or can easily solve its major problems, it’s likely a cult. They (and especially the leaders) see themselves as enlightened, superior people.

This elitism is critical to the cult’s sense of unity and purpose. After all, who would bother joining just some random, ordinary group, right? A cult has to be special in one way or another.

Because the cult is supposedly better than everyone else, they use it as a justification for doing things that the rest of the world “just won’t understand.”

And by that, I mean the harmful, abusive practices discussed above.

14) They have an “us vs. them” mentality

A cult maintains its control and influence over its members by cutting them off from their past lives without the cult.

They will convince them that the life they led before is immoral or degenerative. Or that those outside the cult are ignorant or, ironically, brainwashed by the government or something.

This antagonistic “us vs. them” attitude keeps members isolated from the outside world, further increasing their dependency on the cult.

15.) You always feel guilty

Guilt is one of the most powerful emotions, and cults exploit this for their benefit.

In several ways—some subtle, some direct—a cult will try to make you feel guilt constantly. They want to make you feel like something is wrong with you or that you’re unworthy.

Then they will also be the ones who will ease this guilt, making you feel more connected or dependent on the group.

For example, they will make you follow incredibly strict rules. Then they will punish and guilt-trip you for even the slightest mistake.

This makes you feel bad about yourself, but then they will also love bomb you, especially if you are dedicated and active with the group’s endeavors.

This breeds submissiveness in members, reinforcing the cult’s grip over them.

16) Artificial loyalty and induced dependency

By destroying each member’s sense of self, cults are able to secure their absolute devotion and submission.

Through brainwashing, members will associate individuality, critical thinking, and independence with “evil.” On the other hand, they will see the cult as a strong, loving community. 

It’s a community that is loyal to them, and that has their back—therefore, they need to be loyal and give back to it too.

These feelings of loyalty, however, are not real. They are forcefully inculcated through coercion and manipulation.

17) Deceitful recruitment strategies

Deception and manipulation are key to a cult’s recruitment tactics. For example:

  • They glorify or embellish the true nature of the cult;
  • They will hide the cult’s more harmful, immoral, and illegal activities until they are fully-fledged members;
  • They persuade people that they lack something and that they absolutely need to be in the group;
  • They alter recruits’ consciousness via meditation, drug use, or chanting during initiation rites to make them more vulnerable to suggestion and coercion.

Recruits will have no idea what they’re truly getting into until they are actually there.

18) The group has secret rites and requirements

As we said above, a cult will hide its more sinister activities from new recruits. Often, these are secret rites, ceremonies, or teachings that they will only reveal once they’ve psychologically trapped you in the cult.

These secret rituals serve to further brainwash members and solidify their devotion. 

For example, Greek organizations will never say that they haze recruits until the actual initiation rites occur. Or a cult will only reveal that they require regular financial contributions once they are full members.

Recruits will often be confused or sense that something is wrong, but by the time they’re exposed to these secret initiation rites and activities, they’re already too deep in to back out.

Most will even double their efforts in order to get accepted into the cult. After all, these secret rites are often manipulative—just like almost everything else a cult does.

19) There’s little to no financial transparency

If a group regularly extorts money from its members but refuses to tell them what that money is spent on, it’s most likely a cult. A lack of financial transparency is one of the biggest red flags.

If they’re not doing anything wrong, then there is nothing to hide. Truth be told, many cults’ true primary purpose is to make their leaders rich. Pyramid schemes and MLMs, anyone? 

They may not be strictly a cult, but they’re definitely cult-ish. Either way, get out!

20) Incoherent belief systems and ideologies

Cults have belief systems that are self-serving, unrealistic, or incoherent. 

For example:

  • If the group is religious, do they cherry-pick scripture verses that support their narrative and ignore the rest?
  • Do its leaders claim to be a messiah or know better than the rest of the world?
  • Does the cult have hilariously lofty and unrealistic goals?
  • Does its ideology focus on serving the leader?

Here’s a rule of thumb. If their belief systems are too silly or dubious or if their propositions are too good to be true, they likely are a cult.

21) The leader is everything

Cults are often cults of personality. 

This is when leaders and their personalities are extremely revered beyond any rational justification. Members are to follow them and, as we said above, take their word as absolute and perfect truth.

They are often charming and powerful, allowing them to manipulate people into joining and staying in their cult. Truly, cults are more about their leaders than being a community.

22) It’s okay to ask… at the beginning

While we said that members often do not question the cult, its rules, or its leaders, questions are actually allowed or even encouraged in the beginning. They allow recruits or new members to ask questions or express doubts to give them a false sense of security. 

But only in the beginning. And only on their own terms. 

They are actually well-prepared for the questions newcomers often ask. Their answers are usually half-truths that mask or mislead them about what the group is really about.

The answers given during this phase are often so internalized that people believe them even when they’re full members and are already exposed to the cult’s darker side.

23) Grand narratives

A cult’s beliefs, ideologies, and practices are often based on some sort of grand narrative they believe in. They often have a quote, slogan, or core belief that serves as the cult’s foundation.

However, if one looks at it more closely, they’re usually just overused cliches and general platitudes. Sure, maybe there is some truth to what they’re saying, but they’re not as profound as the cult would like you to believe.

In fact, when you take them at face value, these narratives can be completely false or betray shallow sentiments instead of genuine truth or real empathy.

However, through the leaders’ charm and incessant repetition, people eat them up. The result is that their thoughts are reformed, and their critical thinking skills are debilitated.

They think their thinking is profound or unique when, ironically, it’s anything but.

24) Abnormal belief in the supernatural

It’s one thing to be religious or spiritual. It’s another thing to be obsessed with gods, angels, demons, spirits, and other supernatural beings or phenomena.

Does your religious group obsessively conduct overly elaborate faith healings, exorcisms, or strange rituals? Do their leaders claim to posses special powers like healing, prophecy, or being able to directly communicate with the divine?

Then they’re definitely cultish.

25) They misuse mind-altering practices

Normal groups will alter your mental state in safe ways. They’ll also do it for real, meaningful benefits. 

For example:

  • Meditation during yoga;
  • Chanting or singing during prayer;
  • Ritualistic dancing.

Cults, however, will do so aggressively and irresponsibly. After all, they are extremely obsessed with their various rituals and need their members to be in some state of frenzy. 

Their goal for altering your consciousness is to control your thoughts and emotions.

While it can be difficult to tell the difference between proper and abusive uses of mind-altering practices, taking a look at the activity’s content and context will point you in the right direction.

How can I safely leave a cult? 4 proven ways

1) Don’t just walk away—run!

The first step is to take many, many steps away from the cult. And quick steps too. 

So run. Run!

The moment you realize that the group you belong to is a cult, and especially a destructive one, you need to run ASAP.

Every day you spend staying is another day where you might be further brainwashed, abused, mistreated, or deceived.

Trying to slowly and quietly “transition” out of the cult will simply not work. Due to a cult’s tight surveillance of its members and its general obsessive nature, they will likely notice what you’re trying to do.

This means that you shouldn’t take chances of trying to help others leave too or inform them of your decision. Unfortunately, your need to assume that each member is thoroughly brainwashed by the cult. 

You simply don’t know who you can trust. Anyone you tell just might rat you out. Even if there are some people who are just like you and want to leave, you can’t take chances. Put yourself first and run!

2) Reconnect with friends and family or develop a network of trusted allies

Now that you’re out of the group, you need to find people you can trust.

Destructive cults will completely isolate you from your loved ones, but to whatever extent you can, do the following:

  • Destroy any connection you might have with the cult (like blocking members on social media)
  • Reestablish contact with friends and family;
  • Gain new friendships if the former is hard (but don’t completely trust them—more on that below);
  • Get professional help or alert the authorities.

Being in a cult is hard. Running away from it is even harder.

You need help from decent, trusted people in order to rebuild your life—and yourself.

3) Establish as much independence as you can

Especially financially and materially.

You’ve been conditioned, both psychologically and economically, to be dependent on the cult. This might be the main reason you’re tempted to return. 

You need to eradicate any temptation to go back. That’s why you need to establish as much self-sufficiency as you can as soon as you can.

If all you could muster up is enough cash to stay at a motel for a night or two or even just a few bucks for a bus fare, it’s good enough.

Then go open up a new bank account ASAP, especially if the cult has been controlling your finances and bank accounts.

4) Don’t join new groups in the meantime

You need to regain your confidence, sense of self, and individuality first.

Don’t trust anyone completely—even me! 

I claim to be on your side (and I believe that I genuinely am). However, your former cult members said this too, right?

I do not mean this condescendingly, but after thorough brainwashing by the cult, you might not be in a sharp enough mental state to be discriminating enough when interacting with people.

You just might be too trusting of people. Or even too paranoid to form meaningful relationships after such traumatic experiences!

Reconnect with yourself first before you establish new group relationships.

To wrap up

As bizarre as they may seem from the outside, there is a reason cults can be found all around the world. There is just something twistedly appealing about a secretive, isolated community that supposedly has a special or higher purpose.

They can be just about anything too, not just religion. So even if you think you’re not in a cult, it’s always best to be as self-aware as you can be about the groups you are in. 

And even if they may not be a cult per se, they may still practice things that are cult-like. Knowing if they do so or not allows you to either leave or try to improve the group.

Now, if you’ve realized that you’re in a cult, then take note of our advice. We’re wishing you the best as you reclaim your life and your individual personhood.

After a long time in a cult where you’re conditioned to serve the group in unhealthy ways, trying to leave and build a life for yourself might seem selfish.

But trust us, it’s not. It’s the best thing you can ever do for yourself.

Now go! I’m rooting for you!

Anna Dovbysh

Anna Dovbysh

With 8 years of writing experience and a deep interest in psychology, relationship advice, and spirituality, Anna’s here to shine a light on the most interesting self-development topics and share some life advice. She's got a Master's Degree in International Information and is a life-long learner of writing and storytelling. In the past, she worked on a radio station and a TV channel as a journalist and even tought English in Cambodia to local kids. Currently, she's freelancing and traveling around the globe, exploring new places, and getting inspired by the people she meets and the stories they tell. Subscribe to her posts and get in touch with her on her social media! My social media pages https://www.facebook.com/dovbysh.anna/ https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-dovbysh-18b42728/

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