Can cult involvement be powerful enough to change one’s personality? Most people know someone who represents the face of abuse whether through: domestic violence, a toxic environment, or narcissism. Cult involvement can include all of these, with the addition of spiritual and sexual abuse, including sex trafficking. Cults are defined as an organization with: an authoritarian structure; a closed system of logic; often utilizes thought-reform; and, manipulation tactics. These tactics obtain control over and individual’s thought content, time, and gain power over major elements of the individual’s physical and social environment. ⁶
Typical responses to such control begin with voluntary isolation, subtle changes in vocabulary, dress and/or friendships. Observers view the changes externally. What happens internally—psychologically—with their personality and attachment style? Additionally, are these psychological and personality changes permanent?
To begin, one must define the terms. The independent personality is one that can speak: what they believe; what food they prefer; and, who they want as friends. They can decide: what they like to wear; how they desire to spend their money; and, what they like to do in their spare time. Conversely, a demanding relationship is one in which typical boundaries are not respected. Further, a person’s individuality and personal choice are coerced and slowly meld into the desired characteristics of the cult leader. ⁷ The subjugated person seems to voluntarily relinquish their personal agency and dedicate their loyalty to the controller. ⁵ Cult members do not understand, these changes are offered as a bounded choice with no healthy alternatives.
From the outside, this can appear as if they are “willful victims.” ² Stein calls these voluntary personality changes as “suicide of the inner self.” ⁷ In addition, fear is often the driving factor in the vulnerability to such voluntary subjugation. Fear can keep the victim’s brain working in fight, flight or freeze mode; therefore, preventing sound decision making. ¹ In fact, natural psychological defenses, individual boundaries, and individual personality characteristics are demonized and pressured to be withdrawn. ⁵
The life style adopted is not only external regarding: habits, clothing choice, food, and vocabulary; it is also internalized, meaning the totality of the individual. The result of this internalization is known as the pseudo-personality.⁷ Some researchers believe the pseudo-personality is a separate part of the self. Others assert that it is “an interjected part of the self which can mimic clinical dissociation. Social Identity researchers suggest that the pseudo-personality can be superimposed on top of the original personality.” The intense pressure toward group-think aids in developing this pseudo-personality, which tragically, is self-imposed to fit into the group norm. ²
The counseling model of Attachment Theory describes categories of secure-based and insecure-based attachment styles. The secure-base attachment style includes autonomy and agency. The multiple insecure-based attachment styles vary; however, they are all described as foundationaly fear-based. The fear-driven relationships in cults can evolve into a disorganized attachment, regardless of their original attachment style, to all three of the following: cult leader, the cult organization; and, with peers within the cult. The power of this triple trauma-bond cannot be undervalued. The trauma-bond becomes excessively hard to break and make leaving the cult very difficult. In fact, separating oneself from this internal and external social cult structure ² is described as “psychological self-mutilization,” and identity divorce. ⁷ To summarize, attachment styles often alter within a cult member due to the intense pressure of cult environment to that of disorganized.
Fortunately, researchers believe that the original pre-cult personality still exists deeply within the individual, and it can resurface, in time, after leaving the cult.³ Further, research indicates that insecure attachment styles can be repaired through “earned-secure” relationships.⁴
More information about the difficulties of leaving a cult can be found in the Freedom’s Hope Counseling blog page titled Leaving a Cultic Group at: https://freedomshopecounseling.com/blog/leaving-group/.
¹Dubi, M., Powell, P., Gentry J. E., (2017). The 10 Core Competencies for Evidence-Based Treatment: Trauma, PTSD, grief & loss. PESI Publishing & Media.
²Goldberg, L, Goldberg, W., Henry, R., Langone, M., (2017). Cult Recovery: A clinician’s guide to working with former members and families, 1st ed. Bonita Springs: ICSA, p 341.
³Lynn, S. J., Rhue, J.W., (1994). Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical. New York & London: The Guilford Press, p 271.
⁴Roisman, G. I., Padrón, E, Sroufe, L, A, and Egeland, B., (2002). Earned-Secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect. Child Development, July/August Issue, 73 (4) P. 1204–1219.
⁵Shaw, D., (2014). Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. New York & London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
⁶Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R., (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.
⁷Stein, A., (2017). Terror, Love & Brainwashing: Attachment in cults and totalitarian systems. New York & London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.