How to Leave a Religious Cult
I was raised in a religious cult, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and left at the age of 18. I was recently thinking about the steps I took to separate from it and create a fulfilling life of my own choosing. It was definitely a journey with lots of trial and error, but as I was thinking about it, I identified 4 important steps that helped me a lot, so I wanted to share them below for anyone who is also struggling with this. These steps can also be used to separate from a harmful family dynamic or an abusive relationship as well.
Step one: Embrace the part of yourself that had the courage and strength to want to leave in the first place. The part of you that says hey this isn't right, the part of you that gets angry with the way the cult treats others, the part of you that questions their logic. This is your inner rebel and it will save your life.
Step two: Identify false core beliefs that were instilled by the cult. Cults operate by brainwashing; making us believe in false things to keep us from questioning the truth, separate us from the outside world and keep us placated. Usually this is by using fear, fear of displeasing a god or higher power, fear of death, or fear of ostracization. They also have a way of meeting your emotional needs and taking care of their community as long as you participate fully in the organization. It is important to look at these beliefs that were instilled during your time in the cult. Cults operate on black and white thinking, which can be very limiting, but gives us a clue on how to identify a belief. When we are doing some self reflection to notice our core beliefs, the ones that were instilled by the cult will show up as black and white, and usually will have some fear or shame attached to them. An example harmful belief is that other people outside the cult are dangerous, which will create problems once you are out of the cult and need to reintegrate in society. Another common belief in cults is that your individual needs and wants don't matter, that your purpose in life is to serve the cult.
It's also important to realize that most cults attract people by promising relief from overwhelming situations and will tend to their emotional needs. For example, the cult I was raised in would go door to door to recruit members and the people who listened and invited them in their homes were often sad, lonely, dealing with grief, and needing connection. The cult offered a way out of this torment, which was the promise of everlasting life on a paradise earth, and to someone who just lost a child or had something terrible happen, can be very tempting to believe. Nobody wants to be in pain and it is human nature to seek out ways to make it stop. But the reality is that believing in a lie like this interferes with the natural grieving process and can stop us from connecting with others or professionals outside of the cult, and halt our ability to come to terms with the loss in our own natural and healthy way.
Step three: Identify what healthy relationships look like. If you don't know where to start, look at TV shows, movies, friends or coworkers that show examples of getting emotional needs met safely, like supportive mother characters, positive family values, portrayals of solid friendships and people that embody unconditional love and trust. Once we identify what these attributes look like and how they play out, it will be easier to seek them out in our personal relationships. An important clue is to pay attention to how someone makes you physically feel when you spend time with them. The nervous system knows who it feels safe around. Know that as an adult all of our emotional needs won't be met from just one person, the reality is that we will need to find them from different sources. The goal is to create a supportive environment for yourself of your choosing, which will help build inner trust, to know that you can change your life in a positive and significant way.
Step four: Learning how to support yourself independently and financially. In the cult I was raised in, it was strongly discouraged to go to college and develop a career, as members are expected to dedicate as much of their lives as they can to the religion, and going to college or pursuing a career was seen as too much of a negative distraction. It was drummed in my brain that Jehovah would not approve if I put myself first (and Jehovah not approving meant that I didn't deserve to live on a paradise earth after Armageddon and deserved to die/be wiped out of existence). Once I left the cult and had to start financially supporting myself, I noticed that the learned shame around choosing a career to get out of the rat race of shit jobs out there compounded with the shame of leaving the religion, causing me to feel "kicked while already down." What helped me through this shame was to learn to separate the negative false messages from the cult and see them for what they were. When I realized that they were lies constructed to keep me subdued and in the dark, I was able to feel justifiable anger towards them, and it helped me process it and move forward in my decision to go to college.
Choosing to go to college with no familial support (my JW parents and family had never gone to college and couldn't tell me what it was like) presented its own challenges and at times I felt lonely and like I was fighting an uphill battle. I realized that the college system is designed for students who already have their basic needs met (aren't worrying about paying the rent or eating) and have a support network, usually family, that can lead and encourage them through the tough times. Knowing that this was needed to help me succeed, I tried hard to create a supportive environment for myself to get me through. If I was going to write a recipe for success as a first generation college student, I would list the ingredients as follows:
1) Support and encouragement
I found a friend that had a Master's degree in my chosen field, so I asked him for a lot of advice on how to get through college. The hardest part for me was to get back up after I failed a class or missed a deadline, but my friend gave me some advice that I will never forget, he said "the only way you fail is if you give up." and I still take this to heart every day.
2) Mental and physical health support
This could be seeing a doctor to manage a mental or physical health diagnosis or talking to a counselor for mental health support and guidance. Try to find a counselor that is trauma informed. If you are low income you may qualify for medical benefits through your state (medicaid/medicare) to see a PCP or counselor or to pay for prescriptions. There's also openpathcollective.org which is a database for sliding scale mental health providers (you pay a one time fee of $49 dollars to use the site at the time of writing this) and its sister site https://healingarts.org/ which offers sliding scale access to holistic healthcare (naturopathy, acupuncture, body work).
3) Supporting yourself financially
It's hard to work full time and go to school. Look into federal and state grants and funding before you decide to take out student loans. Utilize your school's work study program, usually this will be awarded as part of your financial aid package, and work study jobs are like fake jobs just for students. The work study jobs I had were very supportive to my class schedule and were genuinely appreciative of the extra help and didn't demand that I work crazy hours. Also, check into state EBT and medicaid programs for food and health insurance. In my state of WA, the state allows students to take advantage of food and medical benefits as long as they meet state low income requirements for financial aid. Essentially, if you are poor, you qualify. Qualifying for state benefits also may make you eligible for free cellphone service through lifeline and or a discount on internet and electricity, so please check your local state requirements.
If you decide not to go to college and just find a job instead, try to dedicate some of your free time to explore a hobby or passion. Take some time to explore different hobbies if you aren't sure what you like. This is your time to focus on yourself and learn essential self love and self care techniques that were prohibited in the cult. Try to save a percentage of your paycheck for a safety net if your job becomes too hard on your physical or mental health and you need to quit. Remember if you quit, you are technically not drawing an income and can usually qualify for state medical and food benefits until you find a better job (if unemployment isn't an option). It is never worth sacrificing your mental and physical health for a job, and this is especially important to remember after leaving a cult, due to it being very easy to identify with a belief that you deserve to be punished for leaving and being independent. You do not deserve to be punished for meeting your basic needs! No human being on earth deserves this punishment! Remind yourself of this every day!
Remember, whatever you decide to do, it is worth it and you aren't doing anything wrong by becoming independent. One day you will look back and realize how strong you were to leave, and how strong you continue to be now that you have stepped into your authenticity and lead a life of your choosing.
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