If you’re asking yourself this question, you probably know the answer.
Many former members of abuse recovery forums use the word “cult” freshly after ending their group experience, in what I believe to be a spontaneous manner. Without connecting with other former members, they leave isolated testimonies on the web, mentioning this uncanny resemblance.
Although unlike proper cults, forums don’t seek to lock you away in a compound so you can spend every waking moment devoting yourself to their cause, they certainly want a monopoly on your view on human relationships, as well as obedience and loyalty. And, of course, some money, if you’re easily persuaded to reward them for their time. A few of them pitch books written by staff members (I know four such groups at least), some ask for donations and one offers paid counselling sessions by people with no training whatsoever in this field.
A quick list of strikingly similar features between some support groups and cults (freshly edited as the initial one was very long, poorly written and repeated a few points):
All forums of this type I’ve come across – described by many as toxic – are built around a charismatic leader, thought to have superior knowledge; there is obvious adulation and never any criticism. The so-called expert has no studies related to psychology or psychiatry but instead has written one or more books about abusers from personal experience. It is not unheard of for them to ask members to discredit the competition (other authors writing on the same topic). The forums themselves are littered with brownie points; it’s little wonder these people get such a big head.
A tight-knit group around the leader is chosen to maintain order; they never display any originality and act as if they represented an institution. They are always cheered on by sycophants in swarms, regardless of the absurdity of their behaviour. Brownie points in their direction also abound. It is known that once inside a controlling group, one absorbs the leading team’s attitudes and after a while cannot realise how absurd they seem to the rest of the world.
There is a clear demand for complete acquiescence to the group’s understanding of the world, as well as the chosen path to whatever the group aims for (in this case, recovery from abusive relationships) . On PF for instance, a single disagreement means you are one foot out the back door. You will be ”tackled” within minutes for any slightly unconventional opinion, as it will immediately be reported to staff members by the vultures of common orthodoxy, posing as loving, supportive peers. Of course, they are not all like that; many people are truly kind, yet I have to wonder how they can look the other way when others are being mistreated. People are even targeted for making common sense observations, such as the fact that it is preferable for the recovery to be quick as opposed to lasting for months or years. If the group agrees on a standard period of time recovery is expected to last, no other option is considered, as insane as that sounds, since every individual and situation is different. And they expect others to treat their estimations as science, being outraged when contradicted.
The false image
They present themselves as a loving, non-judgemental community while being a gossip-ridden wasp’s nest. People join both support groups and cults in hopes of finding a few all-embracing human beings with a higher capability to love, to connect with others. Just before the people at Jonestown commited mass suicide, they briefly managed to keep up that appearance during the official visit. Initially, they were believed.
Disdain for people with actual knowledge in the field
Akin to so-called Christian cults, who hate it when one of the main denominations exposes their aberrant doctrines as non-compatible with Christianity, such forums have an overt dislike for actual therapists or people who have studied their chosen fields in general. The latter will never last there as it is strictly forbidden to ”profess having higher knowledge”, even when you genuinely have it. Just as a quack would not ask for endorsement from an actual doctor, they know they run an improvised show there and are most likely aware they make tons of mistakes.
A pledge is sometimes put before members, which they are encouraged to sign as the symbol of starting a new life. It refers to what they will and won’t do in their private life; very intimate things one should think twice about before jovially signing. And that’s because no stranger has any business interfering with or questioning what you do in your intimate life. It’s one thing to receive advice, and another to adopt a pre-packaged set of rules and morals you find on a website. Even if they sound sensible, for me it’s a bit much. We are all individuals and should never feel accountable to an internet group for what we do privately.
Knowing you better than you know yourself
Such people will boldly tell you not only who you truly are (as you are presumably unable to figure it out by yourself), but who your family members and friends truly are, to the point of lambasting you if you disagree. They will make statements about people they’ve never met and expect you to accept their evaluations, or else. They will draw dramatic conclusions from fleeting online conversations, proving their lack of depth and their sole intention of ”converting” you to their ideology.
Targeting vulnerable people
These sites target people who might not think clearly when joining; staff members are well aware of it and take advantage. The same method is used by cults; they prey almost exclusively on those who are at a crucial junction and don’t know which road to take. Some are suicidal and some just want an ideology to embrace, a new system to live by, if their belief in their former one is shattered.
Attachment and fear of exclusion
One’s journey there consists of love-bombing followed by the swift threat of exclusion, and often swift exclusion as well. At first one is made to feel fully accepted and included; they develop a bond with the group and some of the members in particular, to be coldly reprimanded for trifles and ultimately thrown out. After establishing that the group is the safest environment in the world, the next thing on the list is establishing you might not be worthy of it; you will be permanently scrutinised.
Walking on eggshells around petty tyrants
There is a lot of nit-picking and placing the group’s technicalities above general principles such as compassion and fairness, demonstrating clear pettiness. The examples are countless. Cults are also obsessed with every small rule which helps them believe they re organising themselves according to a well-crafted system.
Former members describe a tightly controlled environment; an overall feeling of walking on eggshells and insecurity about expressing one’s opinion. You just never know when you’ve used too many semicolons. Even if you agree with their principles they will manage to find fault with your posts. Out of the blue, someone will pedantically tell you ”you’re on a recovery forum” and you’re ”detracting from the sole goal of giving and receiving support”. Whatever that means to them.
Paranoia regarding group members
On PF at least, members are told not to trust each other but to trust the leadership instead. They are advised not to make friends straight away, not to communicate privately and so forth. Trust the leadership only. There is also a constant hunt for people who are lying about their situation and have a hidden agenda; new members are targeted immediately, without their knowledge. While they apparently receive you with open arms, they regard everything you post with suspicion and encourage all members to have the same approach. This is very very common in cults and extremist political organisations, where paranoid leaders are always wary of a threat to their status, as well as ”enemy infiltrators”. However, on a recovery forum, that is even more ridiculous.
Permanent ban for trifles
One is subjected to quick and permanent exclusion, no explanation needed. Some cults operate that way, whilst others hardly ever allow you to leave. Scientology can ”declare you a suppressive person” for reading material they disapprove of and associating with people they don’t like , and once you’re out, you’re out. They claim they couldn’t save you from yourself and are suspisicous of anyone who still keeps in touch with you. So does the PF admin.
Both cults and said groups target a particular category of enemies against whom all morality must be dropped. In this case, it is of course the huge army of psychopaths and narcissisits sweeping the world.
Forum staff and members constantly push others to cut ties with various people in their entourage. The few weeks I was active on PF, I never once saw advice such as ”maybe you could try to work things out” when a partner or family member was involved. Moreover, they encourage cutting contact with the suspected psychopath’s family and common friends, even when children are involved, as if that person were radioctive material contaminating everyone they met.
The Stasi and the lack of transparency
Since only parts of a forum are visible to all members, the ”backstage” is full of reports, suspicions, gossip, false accusations, and they require no proof to be investigated by staff members, who then analyse a member’s posts for clues of a rotten personality. On PF, there’s reason to believe even data such as their IP, location, other profile information etc is shared with other sites to find matching profiles of ”trouble makers” (LE, this suspicion was confirmed and what is more, they track people’s on-line activity). There is no limit. All ”investigations”, or should I say witch trials, take place behind closed doors, often without the person being aware. Staff members are never accountable before other members. Accusers are never accountable before anyone. This creates an atmosphere of distrust, not to mention omnipotence on the team’s part.
Paranoia regarding outsiders
Cults are famous for this, and so are forums like PF. It’s in their policy to obsessively distrust others. They insist there are psychopaths at every social gathering, in every work environment, in every group. The world is riddled with these monsters and one must always be on guard.
Baseless arrogance and holy literature
The clique has a chip on its shoulder regarding an advanced level of knowledge in the chosen field etc, which is not substantiated by any recognition in real life. They wear their no contact time like a badge of honour, as if they were eerily competing with anyone along those lines. Such groups almost always sell so-called educational material which is improvised, subjective and misleading, usually authored by their guru; in time this material becomes sacrosanct and above all criticism to them. There is a quasi-religious adherence to the principles and rules of the group, forgetting they came out of thin air and are prone to error.
Such groups commonly seek financial support from members, to aid them in their ”sacred mission” of bringing awareness. Some even make a fortune out of it.
Such groups regularly swarm any dissenters or critics with smear campaigns, putting aside all human decency, any positive interaction they had with them and so forth. They gang up on people on the forum and outside of it.
Idealising the group
Even though they’re aware of all the conflicts, drama and complaints, they shamelessly promote their groups as the best thing since sliced bread.In complete denial, they dismiss any reports of negative experiences as unimportant or false, while praising the positive ones. Perhaps they even believe their own lies.
They seem to truly believe their groups have a special mission on this planet and behave as such (they also behave like others should accept that claim). This, in spite of being aware they are all just improvisers with a strong enough attitude to convince others of their legitimacy. They justify their viciousness through the belief that they are fighting the ”dark side” and everyone they attack is hell-bent on jeopardising their ”sacred mission”; they demonise those who disagree with their actions in order to treat them in any manner.
Staff members use slogans and memes, as well as a jargon, and encourage members to use them. Many cults have a specific language, especially those based on space aliens; Scientology must have hundreds of terms. Besides using clinical terms, these groups often use “narc”, “spath”, “P” and so forth, to somehow feel they are in the inner circle of understanding.
They are no longer acting as individuals but as an institution. Plenty messages reek of corporate PR. ”Here at so&so, we pride ourselves in supporting a creative approach to healing. We take great care to ensure every member benefits from personalised advice…etc”. Besides the hypocrisy, this style is ridiculous through its pretentiousness, since they are only running peer support groups.
They claim to put pressure on members and treat them with ”tough love” for their own salvation. Cults do this all the time, applying all kinds of public scoldings and punitive measures to ”save people from themselves”.
The common road from an ideology based group to a cult
a. A few people gather to discuss a subject they are emotionally affected by and develop a common understanding of it. They theorise their view with no science behind it and establish a strict guideline they never deviate from. Any members who show critical thinking and keep an open mind are expelled or leave and the group is now made up of extremists, often led by one person.
b. They attract proselytes by love-bombing them at a vulnerable time of their lives; they offer answers to confused people who are desperate to be guided, for unconditional support and a space of self-expression; new members develop a high sense of gratitude and attachment to the group. At first they can’t believe their luck, considering the fact that they are improvisers, but the more proselytes they attract, the more arrogant they become.
c. They market well and gain popularity. They now consider themselves authorities in the matter and there is increased talk about their “mission”; the focus shifts from helping individuals onto the general success of the group, to which members start being sacrificed if they don’t agree 100 per cent with the group view. The initial guideline becomes a fiercely enforced doctrine. Its enforcers become “warriors of light” and anyone who challenges them or disagrees with them is seen as opposing their noble purpose. They start looking down on those who are not “enlightened” enough to fanatically embrace their views as soon as they come across them.
d. They are now paranoid and see enemies and infiltrators everywhere. They spy on their members and each other; any decision-making goes on behind closed doors. The leaders are too important to be held accountable for any decision they make. They should never be questioned or contradicted. They start using duplicitous tactics to spot infiltrators, while maintaining the facade of a loving family to draw more people in.
e. The leaders have now lost all humility and are absorbed by their self-constructed expert status. They solidify their theories by writing more and more material, building a public image of legitimacy in the field. Among their members, they are know-it-all’s and regularly break the rules of decency they impose on others. They are condescending, dismissive, controlling, secretive and abuse the confidence of the unsuspecting. All their empathy is gone. They quickly stick derogatory labels on all critics in order to silence them and engage in outright manipulation of public opinion to defend their behaviour. They contradict themselves by inflating their role in the betterment of their members’ lives and minimising it when members are negatively affected by their experience with the group.