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Stages of Cult Recovery Applied to Mormonism

After leaving a high-demand group, there will be many possible symptoms, including depression, confusion, guilt, indecisiveness, phobias, loneliness, and anxiety. These feelings do not in any way prove the Church is true, that you’ve lost the Spirit, or any such thing. It is typical for anyone leaving any cult to have similar problems. They can’t also be experiencing a loss of the Spirit, otherwise, all such organizations would have to be true.

This article contains a list of post-cult recovery stages along with a brief description of how these steps fit Mormonism. The list is taken from Recovery from Cults, specifically Chapter 10, Post-Cult Recovery: Assessment and Rehabilitation by Paul R. Martin, Ph.D. of the Wellspring Retreat, a cult recovery center.

Stage 1: Developing a Conceptual Framework

“The focus of stage one is education and self-acceptance.”

The Possible Need for Exit Counseling 

Exit counseling usually involves a process with a qualified professional to help a person leave a cult, and then recover afterwards. The process can take several days, or be more like therapy, taking years. An exit counselor will cover many of the points on this list, going in depth, i.e. helping the ex-member evaluate the group objectively, learn about thought reform techniques, deal with post-cult symptoms, etc.

A person can leave a cult by themselves (walkaways), or be rejected by the group (castaways). More ex-Mormons leave by themselves than are excommunicated. Those of us who research Mormonism’s hidden side, who seek to understand how we were deceived; we are “exit counseling ourselves”. Message boards and real-world meetings of ex-Mormons serve as support groups where we can express repressed feelings in a sympathetic community.

Recognizing the Importance of Relationships

Many people enter cults for social reasons. It is important that when exiting, the ex-cultist find understanding and acceptance. This is often difficult for Mormons especially in the corridor (Idaho, Utah). Many of us have lost all of our friends and family members, or if we are able to maintain those relationships, we will find our relatives difficult to relate to now that we are no longer a part of a religion which is so inseparable from their lives. Mormons are close-knit, and encouraged to find friendship within Mormonism. Rejection is common (but not always the rule).

The need for friends and support will be very high. If you are in the corridor where entire communities are almost all Mormon, online resources will be helpful to finding people either remotely or locally who will be a good fit. As mentioned above, there are many post-Mormon message boards online, along with notifications of real-world post-Mormon meetings. Finding never-Mormon friends can also be facilitated by looking online.

If you live outside the corridor, your chances of finding friends increases, yet still can find it very difficult to integrate into non-Mormon society. If you are struggling with this, try making a list of all your interest areas. Then look for community classes and interest groups that appeal to you. Making friends based on a common interest can be far more rewarding than basing relationships on a common religion.

However, when seeking new friends and groups, be aware that there are many other high-demand groups out there looking for new recruits. It is very common for ex-Mormons (and ex-cultists in general) to jump from the frying pan into the fire. Study thought reform techniques, and stay alert.

Evaluating the Group

In this phase, ex-members must make a “sound intellectual and theological (or philosophical) evaluation of the group’s teachings”, and also take a second look at the group’s ethics, “for example, its use of money, its methods of thought reform, and its practice of deception”. This is a time for the individual to re-evaluate themselves in the context of what they discover about the cult.

This step is important for many reasons. First of all, it is important to understand what was done to your mind so you can help create healthier structures and mental habits.

Secondly, many ex-members feel guilt over their actions in the group. In Mormonism, former missionaries often feel guilty for converting people, or parents feel guilt over raising their children in the Church. Others may feel bad for shunning relatives and friends who were not living up to the Gospel or who had left. Others feel guilty for how they treated people in general while under the elitist, Us-Vs.-Them mindset. There is also plenty of room for guilt and regret in thinking of how much time and money they gave to a deceptive organization.

Through evaluating the group, it allows moral separation, of understanding how your actions within the group were probably of honest intent, and coming to terms with the deceptions.

Recovery of Fellowship and Recognition of Group Processes

This is similar to a previous step, but it focuses on organizations rather than individual relationships.

The ex-member will seek to join fellowship with others, possibly another group. Issues include problems with trusting other individuals and organizations, or jumping right in to another controlling group. Ex-members may seek that social euphoria of their former group, or turn completely away from intimacy with all people.

The Recognition of “Floating”

Floating has many definitions, and seems to be a broad term enveloping several different types of experiences. Dr. Martin describes it:

“When an ex-cultist gets back into the high after leaving a cult, it is called ‘floating’. If he snaps back into the shame-based motivations experienced in the cult and again believes the cult was right, that too is called floating.”

I’ve also heard it described in the context of triggers, dissociation, severe emotional outbursts, and flashbacks. People from meditation cults will often snap back into uncontrollable trance states.

For ex-Mormons, the extent of these types of symptoms depends greatly upon level of involvement, specific circumstances, and family situations. For missionaries, members who went through the temple pre-1990, those who experienced abuse in Church settings, and those who suffered abuse in Mormon families, may experience dissociated states, panic attacks, and flashbacks, whereas those with a milder Mormon experience will be triggered into nothing more than a confusing muddle of emotions.

Former missionaries are more susceptible, because their experience contained many cultic elements non-Missionaries never face. Sleep deprivation, full immersion, pairing up, constant public commitment of beliefs, lack of nourishing food, separation from family and friends, and regulation of every aspect of daily life. This level of involvement matches with other high-intensity cult involvements found in groups such as the Branch Davidians and Scientology.

The temple experience, however weird it is now, was slightly more traumatic before the 1990 changes. Prior to 1990, temple patrons would pantomime slitting their throats, ripping out their hearts, and disembowelling themselves: a threat of what may happen should they ever break their covenants or reveal temple secrets. Some have reported blacking out this experience.

Abuse by Church members and leaders will associate a lot of trauma with the Church, and would also be followed by more severe forms of floating. Additionally, being raised in an abusive Mormon family will also tie the more traditional traumatic stress with Church symbols, teachings, and memories.

Phobias could also fall under this category — recognizing irrational fears, and dealing with them. Ex-Mormons report phobias along the lines of evil spirits, the end of the world, loss of eternal life, etc.

It is important to be able to recognize floating when it happens, however minor or intense it may be for you. Much more has been written on how to deal with floating, particularly in Captive Hearts, Captive Minds by Madeleine L. Tobias and Janja Lalich.

Understanding Trauma

This step involves recognizing abuse and the long-term effects. Mormons seem to have a wide range of emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse. Some lived in highly dysfunctional abusive families, and the Church reinforced and doctrines provided justification. For others, their families were relatively functional, and the doctrines were slightly more flexible and open. Then there are those of us somewhere in between. Abuses caused by extended relatives, clergy, also cannot be ignored.

In any case, Mormon doctrine is designed to be taken seriously, and some of it is quite mind-twisting. Whatever level of trauma experienced, this is the phase of reconciliation to it.

Thought Reform

Martin insists that for a proper recovery, the ex-cultist must have a good understanding of how they were manipulated. This the purpose of this website. The thought reform causes alienation from the authentic self, so understanding how it was done will help one find their own lost soul.

The Church had the answers to everything, walled us off from the rest of the world, made the doctrine more important than our self, “broadly define[d] sin and narrowly define[d] human nature”, loaded our language to trap us in the “doctrine over self” paradigm, demanded purity, inflicted shame because we could not ever be truly pure, and this increased our dependency… Our only alternative, as repeated time and time again, was certain destruction.

At the end of stage one, Martin summarizes that the joy and rage (and other emotions) must be allowed to run their courses.

Stage Two: Grieving, Reconciliation, and Reaching Out

At this stage, the ex-cultist may experience the following issues: grief for friends and family still in the group, denial (“I can’t believe this happened to me”), regret for lost time, worries about finding a new spiritual path, uncertainty about God, and guilt/shame for having been converted in the first place.

Regaining Purpose

During this phase, the ex-cultist will be searching for meaning in a now-uncertain world. The ex-cultist will need support and affirmation. This is a time for talking about their trauma and finding self-esteem and self-forgiveness. The compass has stopped spinning wildly, and now it’s time to take a look at where it is pointing.

The Need for Reconciliation

Many ex-cultists feel guilty for unethical actions they made while in the cult. This is probably more of an issue for those who served a mission or were called to high leadership positions. If you feel you have wronged someone, now is the time to make amends, if possible. It’s also important to not condemn your old self based your current light.

The Request for Information

This has more to do with doctrinal questions. Try to understand former beliefs, and put them into a context of your newly developing beliefs.

The Need for Support

This is why ex-Mormon forums are so busy. Martin says, “…finding and talking with other former members … is an essential step to recovery… Their experience is similar to that of ‘war buddies’”.

Rediscovery of the Gospel

This is where Martin and I part ways. In this section, he gets a little preachy about finding the real Jesus. (Later he emphasizes that at Wellspring, they only get Biblical and Christiany if people expressly want it.)

I’m going to change his focus a little, and call this phase “Seeking True Spirituality”, whatever its form may be for the individual — be it Christianity, another of the world’s major religions or philosophies, or a personal spiritual path of taking what works, and leaving the rest.

Rescuing Others

During this stage, ex-members may desire to help pull others out of the organization. If it helps, do it. But be aware that attempting this without much education or planning may backfire. Don’t forget, cognitive dissonance is alive and well in your still-Mormon friends and relatives, right along with a plethora of thought-terminating clichés as defenses against just about anything you could say. Pushing too hard can actually reinforce their beliefs.

According to Steve Hassan in Releasing the Bonds, the best way to approach this is to plant seeds along the way (to use a Mormon analogy). Reality-check by asking questions to show inconsistencies and contradictions in logic. Ask “what-if” questions. You won’t unconvert anyone over night, but the idea is to get them to think, to apply a slightly new paradigm on new events.

Sometimes “saving” members is not the best choice, or not even possible, so it’s important to know when it is appropriate and when it is not. Also be sure you are not damaging yourself even more by trying to save them. Remember, ultimately, their choices are their responsibilities. Often ex-cultists from any group get frustrated at this stage because of their powerlessness, and this can induce a new round of guilt. Be aware of this and avoid it.

Contact by the Cult

 Ex-Mormons aren’t the only ones that get bugged and harassed. According to Martin, the first attempts will be in the interests of bringing the ex-cultist back. If those don’t work, “they will try to discredit the former member and limit any contact he or she may have with the cult.”

Sound familiar?

How about this? “Their tack is to say things like, ‘We miss you,’ ‘We love you,’ ‘We have been so worried about you,’ ‘We have been praying for you,’ ‘We would like to be with you.’” This is right out of the book.

Martin advises caution in this area. Ex-Mormons are probably physically safe — some cults will try to kidnap former members. However, I would also advise caution — while in Mormonism it was difficult to see the serious controls in place. Mormons typically place eternal salvation, and therefore, the Gospel, over all else. Now that you are no longer one of their number, they may display some very unusual and unexpected behaviors in your direction.

Please don’t underestimate how strong their beliefs are — Mormon doctrines (eternal family, the plan of salvation, Satan’s active temptations, death before chastity loss, etc.) are held above the concept of individual rights and personal comfort. This usually manifests in a lack of respect for boundaries.

Retributions of the Cult

This addresses the threat of physical violence from the cult. This one is probably not a worry in modern mainstream Mormonism. It definitely once was, and still is for Mormon Fundamentalist groups.

Reemergence of the Past

This section deals with psychological and emotional issues one may have had prior to joining the cult. Most members are born into the Church, so I’d include issues not directly related to Mormonism, whether caused by nurture or nature.

Previous experiences must be re-evaluated with your new, non-cult mind. This includes childhood abuse, addictions, loneliness, unresolved grief, relationship problems, etc. The Bandaid of resolution-through-faith has been ripped off, so now old wounds can be viewed from the secular viewpoint of modern psychology. Science hasn’t gotten it all figured out yet, but it’s a lot more likely to help than advice like, “Pray and read the scriptures”, “It will all work out in the end”, “Remember Heavenly Father loves you”, “You’re a child of God”, and “Quit dwelling on the negative and just get over it!”

All aspects of Stage Two may bring old issues to light that were never properly dealt with. This may add to the emotional turmoil, confusion, and uncertainty.

Stage Three: Reintegration into Society

“When the former cult member begins talking less and less about the cult and spending more time in career, relationship, and personal issues, then he or she is in the third stage of recovery.”

There is often a negative connotation to “dwelling in the past” or focusing on the negative. While writing this very article, I found myself feeling a little guilty, thinking “Geez, I’m still stuck in stages one and two, what’s wrong with me?” This attitude will get me nowhere. I have decided to spend as much time as I like right where I am. If I’m interested, there must be a reason why — in fact, there doesn’t even need to be a reason.

And if I become disinterested for a while, and five years from now, come back to it, so be it. I will forgive myself, and let myself do what needs to be done. There is no shame in it… Take your time.

Above all, recognize you spent years, possibly your whole life in Mormonism. Your ancestors may have been pioneer Mormons. It’s a part of you, your culture, your heritage. A continuing interest in it does not mean you “can leave but can’t leave it alone”, it does not make you obsessional, it does not make you a bad person.

Positives of the Cult Experience

As part of the process, we can look at the positive things we learned and experienced because of Mormonism. While some of these traits are out of whack and need some calibration, I learned determination, honesty, restraint, moderation, politeness, kindness, hard work, and how to play the piano.

What did you learn?

Recovery of the Whole Self

Martin makes reference to finding the pre-cult self, which can be frustrating for those born in the Church.

Books and papers refer to this elusive “pre-cult self”, but I never had a pre-cult self. For me, I’ve rephrased these references to “authentic self”.

Finding your authentic self is difficult, but you know you’ve tapped in during those moments of joy while doing something that is uniquely you.

The Self and Religious Commitment

Martin and I again part opinions in this section. He speaks of the difference between performance-based doctrines and Jesus-forgives-all doctrines.

I think a better message here is separating the performance-based worthiness you experienced in Mormonism from a pure self-love, self-esteem, valuing you, and finding your authentic self. This step, for me, is the moving towards a more authentic and fulfilling life, of living for life’s own sake.

Recovery of the Practical

Mormons are already practical. We’re encouraged to be self-sufficient when it comes to finances, shelter, and food needs, so many of the problems facing some other ex-cultists in this regard will probably not be an issue for ex-Mormons.

Unless… You’re a woman, temple-married to a still-believing man. Or a child or a teenager or a student. Or on your mission. Or church-employed. Or attending a Church school. Or living and working in the Mormon corridor. In which case, this may be a very real problem.

I would also include under this category the maintenance of family and marriage in the face of a true-believing spouse and children. This is a very common problem for post-Mormons.

Recognition of Sexuality and Intimate Relations

Nearly every cult controls sex and relationships on one way or another. Sex is either prohibited or demanded.

During this phase, some ex-cultists go overboard doing whatever is the opposite of their leaders commands. Ex-Mormons often refer to this as the “Adolescent Phase”, where stalled teen years are lived out to their fullest, no matter the age of the person. Sometimes this can get a little dangerous, if caution and moderation are ignored.

Longing for Friends in the Cult

Martin recommends balance, and making sure this longing isn’t misplaced guilt or codepencency. Try to maintain links to still-Mormon family and friends, so long as the relationships remain healthy.

Summary

The stages outlined for cult recovery are very applicable for Mormons in recovery. This list is just an overview, so the serious reader may wish to browse the bibliography for further research into understanding their experiences.

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