So much has been written about the destructive impact cults of personal development have had on families and individuals. Measured against the scale and scope of our ongoing human catastrophe, this type of odyssey is a pale and insignificant luxury problem. Yet, I suspect that this type of small intimate trial, which tends to wreak havoc upon unsuspecting families, is a crucible more common than acknowledged. We are already very familiar with the post-mortem narrative – the aftermath of a marriage, the dissolution of a family, the agonies of rupture and the struggle for repair – but this account is more about hope. This is a story about the grip of grace and how a little forgiveness can mend the wounds and heal the pains of relationships strained by sectarian divisiveness.
First, we should make an imperfect attempt at defining what a cult of personal development is. I say imperfect because as initiates of these things will readily tell you, one person’s cult is another person’s classroom.
These types of organizations are hierarchical pyramids where the opacity at the peak allow those who trickle below to act in relatively good faith. They are for-profit businesses that self -irrigate by requiring (some would say ‘strongly encourage’) it’s adherents to recruit new acolytes. The typical inaugural exposure is a sensorially deprived two or three-day retreat where the new candidates are subjected to twelve to fourteen hours of daily instruction. The instructor is often called a ‘leader’ whose credentials are strictly inbred. The content within a particular cult never deviates and the ‘leader’ is nothing more than a mouthpiece with charisma.
The codified sharing of intimacies is an integral part of the initiation process. Throughout the program, participants are given prompts and are told to reciprocally respond to the person sitting adjacent. This type of exposure to strangers begins the process of creating a sense of belonging, similar to the type of bond one experiences at a sleep-away camp. The confessionary trope remains constant, creating an emotional co-dependency that is one of the most important conditions for group adhesion.
The sharing takes the form of extremely abridged grievances accrued through defective childhoods, relationships or work experiences. Some traumas are much more extreme than others, creating an asymmetrical pecking order where greater psychological damage accords greater prestige.
Throughout the day the ‘leader’ encourages the group by validating their putative strengths. Words like “empower,” “awesome” and “fierce” are used to lift the collective spirits and to endow the group with unearned achievement. To someone afflicted with a chronic insecurity stemming from a dramatic early experience of failure, abuse or rejection, this may be the first time in their lives where they experience unconditional affirmation. This is a sensation impossible to reproduce in the real world of work, community and family. As such, the first manipulative stake is planted firmly into the malleable mind. What the cult provides is a safe, dependable theatre where reliable ratification is always guaranteed.
The vernacular of these cults is equally determinate. Common words are refitted with new definitions endowing the initiates with a lingua franca that’s designed to be poorly understood by outsiders. This ingenious tactic encourages the adherents to first recruit their family members and then their friends so that one can merge the real world with the hermetic world of the cult. This is extremely important insofar as cult members think of themselves, not as members of some larger organization but simply as improved versions of their former selves. Familiar faces from home or the workplace help reinforce this illusion of unchanged normalcy.
Once a person ‘drinks the Kool-Aid’ they become insufferable missionaries extolling the dramatic benefits of their personal transformations and urging those in their orbit to attend a session devoted to recruitment. These sessions are given innocuous names like ‘A Special Evening’ or ‘Open House’ in order to sanitize their ulterior motive. These sessions will include testimonials baring witness to rapid characteral reforms, dramatic employment developments or romantic breakthroughs of Hollywoodian dimension. A subtle soft-sell hardens as one approaches the registration tables that until the intermission were all but hidden.
The success rate of these recruitment exercises is almost as low as direct mail campaigns but at no expense to the organization, every new signee is a windfall.
Which brings us to one of the most nefarious aspects of these cults. Those sitting at the registration tables, those who greet the guests and help them find seats, those who set up the furniture and break it down once the event is over are all working as volunteers. The only paid employee is the ‘leader’ and all the others are performing a service as part of some codified ‘agreement.’ To neglect your prescribed hours of unpaid service to the organization is to fall into the malignant category of ‘out of integrity.’ Apparently, the release from one’s debilitating past does not come free of some good old-fashioned Christian guilt.
As can be imagined, the human cost of this kind of personality transformation can be enormous. The untidy unpredictable realities of real-world relationships are irreconcilable with the pre-digested palliative prescriptions of self-help. When one whose personality has been flattened by such a perfectly constructed, absolutist belief system attempts to re-enter the real world, only dissonance awaits. Trying to fit the subtle ambiguity of our disorderly lives into this new template is a recipe for disaster. And so, the adherent is faced with a binary choice. Either question their newly acquired orthodoxies with all the concomitant psychological struggles that will result or retreat into the rigidity of group-think and hope to feel no pain.
The later choice comes with the predictable consequences.
The hope I promised at the start of this essay is never a given. If you are faced with a loved one, so desperate that they would willingly abdicate their personal agency to a cult of personal development, my best advice is to show them only compassion. Never attempt to bring them back from the brink. Brainwashing is a sophisticated science that cannot be countered with reason or rhetoric. It’s like losing a limb and praying for it to grow back. The only thing you can do is to forgive and hope that behind the veil of empty ritual and jargon, the person who once was is still there and if given enough time may, or may not, come back.