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Why We Are All Vulnerable To Abusive Groups & Relationships

Image credit, Becca Tapert

It's embarrassing to admit when you've been on the receiving end of abuse. But I want you to know you're not alone. We're all vulnerable to toxic relationships and that includes the camaraderie of social groups that start off as hopeful spaces and slowly segue to cold-hearted manipulation.

After watching the docu-series LuLaRich, Seduced, Wild, Wild, Country, and The Vow, I'm compelled to relay some important observations about abusive communities.

And how we're all susceptible to abuse.

First, let's learn the definition of abuse. defines abuse as:

1: a corrupt practice or custom

2: improper or excessive use or treatment

3: language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily

4: physical maltreatment

Bringing the topic of abuse and cults led to discussion among strangers on the internet and in my own inner circle. I heard several people make the statements:

"I would never join a cult."

"How can these women be so stupid?"

"I would just leave."

The blanket statements of judgement had me flustered as we never know the "why" behind any situation we're not intimately involved with. Because nobody joins a group or starts a relationship ready and willing to be taken advantage of, abused and coerced into participating in destructive actions.

If we back up, the common denominator of why intelligent individuals found themselves at the end of a horrifying experience started with a mission of integrity.

-> A promise for answers.

-> A focus on community and helping the environment.

-> A fine-tuned version of yourself to finally achieve your dreams, allowing you to help others.

-> The gift of helping you get "unstuck".

-> An answer to your financial and/or health struggles, allowing you to spend more time with the people you love.

All of the above contain admirable goals for self-improvement.

However, indoctrination (the process of accepting ideas, beliefs, and actions of a group) takes time. Small moments that nudge and place you in the position of questioning your own beliefs, but not to the point where you're turned off and leave.

Intelligence doesn't make you less likely to be in an abusive relationship either, in fact, it makes you better equipped to defend and rally behind your community.

In Janja Lalich's book, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Lalich breaks down the characteristics associated with cults: (Excerpt from TBYL)

  • The group displays an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (e.g., members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry—or leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (e.g., the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

  • The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders, or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

  • The group teaches or implies that it supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (e.g., lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

  • The group is preoccupied with making money.

  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave—or even consider leaving—the group.

Hmmmm...I think I might be in an abusive relationship or cult. Now what?

#1 - Don't feel shame.

#2 - Know there's help out there.

Look for therapists who specialize in trauma and ask them if they have knowledge about working with individuals leaving abusive relationships. Dr. Lalich has an excellent list of How to Find a Qualified Therapist on her website.

More excellent resources to help in your healing:


Take Back Your Life Recovery, LLC offers individual consultations and interactive recovery courses on a variety of topics for survivors, and CE-certified trainings for helping professionals to become more skilled at working with clients who have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD).

Educator, author, and international authority on cults and coercion, Dr. Janja Lalich, Licensed Professional Counselor Beth Matenaer, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sally Martin have created this recovery series to support individuals with safe and effective interventions for healing.

What to know about TBYL courses:

-> Take Back Your Life Recovery sessions are on Zoom. -> Classes start January 8, 2022. -> Find detailed class information and sign up on A message from Janja, Beth, and Sally:

"As the three of us are also survivors of cultic systems, we personally understand the importance of safe and effective interventions for healing as you take back your life and navigate your own recovery. We believe the most enduring path forward offers psychoeducation, self-regulation tools, and personal insight and empowerment."



Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Dr. Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias

Cult victims and those who have suffered abusive relationships often suffer from fear, confusion, low-self esteem, and post-traumatic stress. Take Back Your Life explains the seductive draw that leads people into such situations, provides guidelines for assessing what happened, and hands-on tools for getting back on track. Written for the victims, their families, and professionals, this book leads readers through the healing process.

A resource list and numerous personal accounts of those who have successfully made the transition to the “normal” world provide help and inspiration.

(Synopsis via



Sarah Edmondson on "A Little Bit Culty"

Image via A Little Bit Culty on Instagram

Former NXIVM members turned whistleblowers, Sarah Edmondson and her hubs Anthony “Nippy” Ames, fled the "executive success program" and now host A Little Bit Culty to shine the light on the atrocities of abusive groups and aid in their own healing.

Sarah Edmondson speaks directly to individuals who think they might be in a cult on her website:

"Don’t ask your leaders if you are in one because they will lie to you and put you on their radar as a trouble maker. Instead, take a breath, take some time to educate yourself, and research to see if there are any allegations against the leaders or leadership.
I also recommend reading Combatting Cult Mind Control by Stephen Hassan… finally, find an exit counsellor. If you managed to get out and haven’t done any counseling, I highly recommend doing THAT… And I personally LOVED the book, Take Back your Life by Janja Lalich.

You're not alone. We're all vulnerable to abusive relationships. Beyond the resources listed above, MDW is a safe space for support. If you need guidance and help finding local professionals in your area, message me on the Ask Qs page or email me at


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