11 Things I’ve Learned From All The Cult Documentaries & Podcasts

Lissa Rankin, MD
10 min readNov 20, 2023

Because two people in my inner circle are in recovery from controlling relationships and cultic abuse, I’ve been educating myself by watching all the cult documentaries, reading books about cult recovery, and listening to all the podcasts, like my favorite, Rachel Bernstein’s Indoctrination. My favorite part of Rachel’s podcast is the “Just one thing before you go” section at the end of all her interviews, where she summarizes the psycho-education pieces of what we need to know to protect ourselves and our loved ones from spiritual abuse and coercive control. I’ve been taking notes from what I’m learning and sharing with my loved ones. So let me share with you some of the key take home points.

1. The easiest way to control someone is to inflate them into feeling special- and then put them down.

Nearly every cult and controlling relationship begins with the controller hooking someone’s unworthiness wounds by making them feel like they’ll be special if they get picked by the controller or if they’re part of a group of special/ “better than” people. That dynamic, however, requires that the person being groomed for psychological manipulation and control also has to be “not special” with regard to the controller. So you gain specialness (and make your hurt young parts feel temporarily better) by being part of the “special people” cult or by being chosen to be close with a seductive, powerful, beautiful, intelligent, talented, “enlightened” or otherwise “special” person who is blended with narcissistic or sociopathic parts. Of course, it winds up doing just the opposite when you ultimately realize you’ve been conned and feel the ultimate “unspecial” pain. It’s almost impossible to control someone unless there’s a hierarchy of value, with some people mattering more than others, and other people mattering less. The minute you break down that dialectic, the minute you create relationships and groups that share power, rather than having a hierarchical power structure based on some people mattering more or less, the whole con falls apart.

2. Love bombing is a massive red flag. 3. Morality is NEVER about unconditional obedience to any other human, no matter what.

The Oxford dictionary defines love bombing as “the action or practice of lavishing someone with attention or affection, especially in order to influence or manipulate them.” (I wrote about how it differs from real love .) This is why we need to slow down and pay attention if someone is making us feel really special. Of course, when we fall in love or are passionate about a mission, it does make us feel special, and that’s okay. We all have parts that need to and deserve to feel special sometimes. But if that specialness starts to distort your thinking and make you think you’re more special than other people and less special than the person who is trying to control you, that’s a big red flag. Actual love and love bombing feel very different when you’re on the receiving end of them. But to be able to tell the difference, you’ll need to have your street smarts turned on, your gut instincts firing, your emotions on tap, and your critical thinking parts discerning whether someone is safe. If someone is new in your life and suddenly they’re telling you how special you are, sucking up to you, flattering you, buying you expensive presents, using terms of endearment prematurely, saying “I love you” when they don’t even know you, or trying to pressure you into committing your undying loyalty (or money or free labor or hero worship or marriage) before you’ve even had a chance to discern if they’re trustworthy, you’re probably dealing with a dangerous person. Real love, real affection, real intimacy and connection builds over time, as trust builds- slowly, gently, authentically. No matter how lonely you might feel, and no matter how good it might feel temporarily to believe the love bombing is real, the pain you’ll feel when the love bombing inevitably wears off won’t be worth it. Bite the bullet and cave early. Weaning off the toxic Kool-aid is easier than getting destroyed years later by a predatory manipulator.

Sure, it’s good moral practice to obey the law books, assuming the law is in place to protect universal human rights. But if the law is telling you to round up the Jews and send them to concentration camps or if the law oppresses women or LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC or if the law of your guru demands that you neglect, abandon, or beat your kids or commit your children to human trafficking, it is not moral to obey these kinds of laws.

Real morality is about following your own conscience and practicing real integrity. Morality does not require obeying an authoritarian figurehead, being obedient to a spiritual leader’s distorted interpretation of some spiritual text, or being unconditionally compliant with a narcissistic partner’s or family member’s entitled demands.

If someone doesn’t express remorse when they hurt you, if they’re not begging for mercy and apologizing profusely and getting help so they stop hurting you, you do not have to forgive them. Ever.

There is no other person out there who can figure out what God wants for you better than you can, so don’t get tricked into thinking you have to be obedient to someone who claims to have the direct 411 to God. What they’re really trying to get you to do is give them complete power, dominance, and control. Say no. Walk away. Rebel against immoral obedience.

5. Whistle-blowing is a brave, ethical behavior that stops perpetrators from harming others.

The way abusive narcissists and sociopaths get away with their exploitative, criminally abusive actions is that their victims let them off the hook of accountability, over and over again. They count on that. They build it into their teachings- that you are responsible for everything that happens to you, even when someone else is abusing you. They convince you that forgiveness is the highest spiritual value, and they pressure you to forgive when someone is not sorry, is not making amends, and is not stopping the abusive behavior. And that’s how they get away with it, time and time again, throughout human history. But you do not have to forgive your abuser or let them off the hook, especially if they’re not sorry and they deny the abuse, gaslight you, or try to point the finger of blame back at you. It’s okay to cut people who behave that way out of your life permanently.

6. Silence is violence.

One of the ways manipulators and controllers silence their victims is by convincing them that it’s not “spiritual” to call someone out for hurtful behavior. They demonize you for “polarizing,” “being divisive,” lacking “Oneness, “not being non-dual enough,” “not forgiving spiritually enough,” or “judging others,” all while continuing the abusive behaviors and getting away with it. The only way we stop perpetrators of abuse from harming more people is by blowing the whistle and holding them to account. Investigative journalists are often the first line of defense in the immune system of our culture. If enough whistle blowers tell their stories, on or off the record, the outcry of public outrage will sometimes pressure district attorneys and federal agencies to investigate further. Blowing the whistle is a brave act, a deeply moral act. Staying silent, while understandable, allows the abuse to continue, even if you’ve gotten out yourself.

7. Abusive perpetrators prey upon the best parts of their victims.

When we keep quiet in the face of abuse, we empower the abuser to keep abusing. Yes, it’s scary to speak up, especially when abusers threaten violence or lawsuits or other forms of harm, and it can indeed be life threatening to speak up sometimes. So it’s understandable why people get intimidated into silence by people who are blended with parts that have no conscience. Yes, it can feel embarrassing to survivors to admit that they got fooled by con artists and predators, so it’s natural to want to pretend it didn’t happen and just move on. Yes, it can feel awful to say out loud that the person you thought loved you, the person you devoted yourself to, was actually taking advantage of you and conning you. It’s totally understandable that someone would want to just walk away and never look back. But as long as people keep walking away and never looking back, the con artists and perpetrators of spiritual abuse and other kinds of criminal abuse get away with it and keep harming the next person. Speaking up is an act of courage and love that protects people you may not ever know from being the next victim. It’s also an act of love for yourself, to take a stand for your own value, your own justice, your own story.

8. Recovery requires rebuilding an authentic identity after the culty identity crisis.

It’s important to remember that people get caught up in abusive relationships and cultic groups because their sweetest, most idealistic, most good-hearted parts get hooked. Nobody joins a cult or signs up to get manipulated and controlled. They join a movement that really care about or they give too much, from a generous heart, to someone who expresses needs/ entitled demands and isn’t ashamed to ask them to sacrifice their whole life in service to love, mission, or a utopian ideal. On the other side of recovery, survivors get to keep their best parts- their good-hearted, empathic, generous, idealistically sweet parts- and find safer, more trustworthy outlets for those parts. Victims are not fools or stupid or suckers. They often care very deeply and are vulnerable because of how much they care and want to please and support and help other people, to the point of martyring themselves and their own needs.

9. People who leave controlling relationships or controlling groups need to be granted agency and autonomy by those who love them.

When you realize you’ve been betrayed and abused by the person you devoted yourself to, that you’ve been conned into a lie, that the manipulative person you’ve worshipped and obeyed is actually a predator, not a saint or a soulmate or a Messiah, your whole world comes crashing down around you. Deprogramming from indoctrinated belief systems and practices that favor the perpetrators and harm the victims is part of the process. But deprogramming creates a kind of identity crisis, a collapse of a false identity that needs to be rebuilt, sometimes from scratch, if someone is born into an abusive situation. Rebuilding a truer identity based on a core of what’s real and true and good about a person takes time, but it’s also a sweet process. This is where spirituality can help, in the best kind of way, since we all have a spiritual core than can not be damaged, that is never traumatized, and does not need to be built up, because it’s already there. What really has to get built up is a functioning ego, the good kind. The survivor finally gets to decide for themselves what they love, who they want to be in the world, what their preferences are, what their aversions are, and how to make decisions for themselves, based on feelings, rather than obedience or people pleasing.

10. Because of “betrayal blindness,” it may take a long time for the narcissistic spell to break.

Someone straight out of a controlling situation is very vulnerable to the next controller and needs a cocoon of support from safe, trustworthy people who are committed to not exploiting their vulnerability. This cannot be emphasized enough. Those who love people in recovery from coercive control need to check themselves and be vigilant about letting the person in recovery make their own choices, assert their own agency, do what’s right for themselves for a change, and resist any tendency the survivor might have to giving their power away or letting others make their decisions for them. A high level of integrity and ethics is required to support a survivor of this kind of abuse. Otherwise, even if your intentions are good, the supporter might wind up becoming the next controller- and the cycle repeats, retraumatizing the survivor.

11. It should always be okay to respectfully challenge authority.

In Jungian psychology, the narcissist is the witch/wizard archetype, and witches and wizards are really good at casting spells. Even after someone leaves, they may still be under the spell for quite some time, making them vulnerable to going back. The spell can be cast through seduction, through terror, through idealism, through hero worship or perfect parent projections- but such spells are very, very powerful and not to be taken lightly. Those supporting others who are coming out from under the spells need to be patient and resist saying things like “Snap out of it!” It’s not that simple. Understandably, the emotional weight of bearing the truth of the betrayal, especially when people have lost decades of their lives, can feel like too much to handle all at once. Even when presented with provable facts, the phenomenon of “betrayal blindness” can prevent someone who has been victimized from actually facing how deeply they’ve been betrayed. They may defend their abuser for the rest of their lives if they can’t handle facing the sometimes life-long betrayal. It can be easier and safer sometimes to allow the trauma bond to dissolve slowly, gently, as the identity rebuilds and the psyche groks the horror of what actually happened.

If you’re in any relationship or group where you don’t feel safe to challenge authority, you are in an unsafe situation. It’s not okay to abuse the authority figure when you’re challenging authority- that just makes you the next perpetrator. But you should always be able to speak up, question a leader’s beliefs or behaviors, think for yourself, critically examine anything you’re being asked to believe or do, feel safe to do so, and get heard. If you’re being bullied into not challenging authority or if you’ll be fired, beaten, shunned, attacked, or abandoned if you do so, get out. STAT.

Learn more and register here.

If you know someone who is in recovery from a controlling relationship or a culty group, please feel free to pass this on. If this resonates with you, you might also benefit from the Becoming Unf*ckwithable online course we created to support those in recovery from narcissistic abuse.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.