I think I know why some people start cults (and other people crack under the pressure of being an “influencer”)

Heather Plett
14 min readJun 16, 2021


“It would have been easier if we’d just started a cult.” That’s an ongoing joke between Krista (my business partner) and I. Sometimes running an ethical, community-oriented organization where we hold space for people to do complex personal work can be hard and even confronting (we have to do our OWN complex personal work at the same time) and the idea of unquestioned totalitarian leadership feels slightly appealing. (It’s a joke — we don’t really mean it. Given our personalities, it would be far too stressful.)

Krista and I both do a lot of reading, watching, and listening to gather whatever useful information we can find about cults, precisely because we recognize the danger and are determined to build as much of an anti-cult organization as we can. Our partnership happened partly because we both saw the potential danger of an organization built solely on the identity, ideas and ethics of one individual (especially when that individual has as much fallibility and trauma as I do).

As someone who’s had a growing audience paying attention to her work, though, I think I have some perspective on why some people start cults, why people get drawn into them, and why some influencers crack under the pressure.

Let me pull back the curtain on some of what it’s like to step into this strange world of influencer/author/teacher in the field of personal development, spirituality, self-help, etc., especially during this social media era. Here are some reflections on what I’ve witnessed, especially this year since I’ve published a book and launched the Centre for Holding Space:

  1. We love celebrities (until we hate them). In a celebrity-obsessed culture, like we have in North America, many of us idealize those who’ve gained some fame, and we do a few things: fantasize about being them, project our own dreams and failings onto them, become obsessed with knowing everything about them, think that proximity to them will increase our own worthiness, and layer lots of expectations onto them to fill the voids in our own lives. We don’t really want to understand the complexity of what it’s like to be that person, because then we can’t hold onto our own fantasies of what it would be like to be rich, famous and powerful. That means that those in the public eye are really only seen as cardboard cutouts of themselves and not their real selves and to show their realness might actually be dangerous for them (especially if they have abandonment trauma) because then people will turn against them and perhaps destroy the image of them (to deal with the disappointment over dreams dying).
  2. We give our power away. Related to the above point, there is a fair amount of disempowerment in North American culture, which I think is steeped into a capitalist and white supremacist mindset. Some of the disempowerment has been imposed on us because of colonization, plus many of us have been socially conditioned to give away our personal power and assume that others have more power (especially if they have more money, a title, a position in government, influence, etc.). Especially if we’re privileged by the system, many of us lack self-leadership and self-determination because we’ve been led to believe we’ll be looked after by the system. Because we’re not used to claiming our own power, it can means that we have some discomfort when we witness personal sovereignty in people who are supposed to be like us (and we’ll sometimes tear down people if we see them claiming their sovereignty, putting up boundaries, and not accepting abuse), and it also means that we trust other people to fix our lives when we should be taking ownership of them ourselves. Self-help authors, social media influencers, coaches, etc. are given too much power when people assume that their advice will be the magic ticket that will solve their problems, and that kind of power can go to a person’s head if they lack grounded self-esteem.
  3. We are lonely and disconnected. Especially in individualistic, capitalist cultures, where we can buy nearly every item and service we need and we rarely need to rely on our neighbours, and where we’ve lost many of the kinds of religious and community gatherings that once connected us to each other, there is a lot of loneliness and disconnection. This is, of course, exacerbated by the pandemic, but was already very much present in North American culture pre-pandemic. This means that we’re looking for our connections online and can get easily drawn in by people and groups that give us a sense of belonging (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but can leave us vulnerable to abuse and manipulation). Unfortunately, we all live somewhat curated lives online, so even the people who are quite honest and real online are not showing all of the messy bits of their lives. That allows us to further idealize those who give us wisdom and offer the promise of more connection with ourselves and others. Unfortunately, it also means that we often turn to ill-equipped social media influencers and community gatherers for what we once received from pastors and other spiritual/community leaders. (Not that those leaders were perfect either, but at least there was a greater chance that there were communities holding them accountable.)
  4. Many of us had unhealthy parents and are unconsciously seeking replacement figures. When people experience a teacher/influencer as a kind and openhearted authority figure, a surprising number of those people will project their own unhealed wounds around parenthood and authority onto that person. That means that they always need that person to show up as kind and openhearted, to fill in for the parent or benevolent authority figure they didn’t have. The moment those people don’t get what they think they need from the influencer, though, they’ll blame the person for failing them, not recognizing that their feelings of abandonment are older and bigger than the relationship with the influencer. This puts the teacher/influencer in a difficult position because whatever boundaries they try to erect and whatever ways they refuse to take on the projections, they risk upsetting people. And with social media being what it is, that upset can turn into vitriol and suddenly there are many people publicly finding fault with the influencer. It can easily slide into transference and countertransference where the teacher/influencer then projects their unhealed wounds back at people. (There seems to be a lot of unhealed parent/authority stuff in North American culture. Perhaps some of this is about being part of a culture that’s trying to grow up? And having a lot of traumatized people as parents?)
  5. We project perfectionism on those we receive our teaching from. Social media tends to perpetuate and amplify some harmful and reductive tropes, rooted in perfectionism, that can trap teachers/influencers into boxes and coerce them into meeting certain expectations in order to be validated by their followers. For example, there’s a Good White Woman/Ally trope alive on social media. Any influencer who has any inkling toward social justice must uphold the following standards to be considered worthy of this imaginary badge: She must know all of the right language for social justice and not mess up in public. She must be willing to call out other white women who mess up in public (including contributing to the pile-ons). She must never show white fragility (or any kind of fragility). She must never show any of her humanity in wanting support or affirmations (because then it looks like she needs “cookies” for doing good work). She must graciously accept all of the projections and blame associated with having power and/or being adjacent to power and must never reveal that she, too, has been traumatized by the system she’s received privilege from (because that would risk centering her own pain). She must post something meaningful that reveals her allyship any time there is a news story about injustice or a special day honouring a marginalized group. And she must be willing to do all of that at the cost of her own family and life. This trope is largely performative and not relational, authentic or grounded in community or meaningful accountability. Tragically and ironically, it is mostly upheld and policed by other white women, and is deeply rooted in the perfectionism of white supremacy and the internalized oppression and lateral violence of the patriarchy. It can make social media feel, sometimes, like a minefield, and even repeated and prolonged attempts to show up in relational, humble ways can be called into question to the point where a person barely wants to show up at all. (Note: I am not questioning genuine and meaningful accountability here — I think that’s necessary and can contribute to people’s growth, especially if it happens within a community container of support. What I’m challenging is the performative aspect of trying to show up perfectly and the sometimes quick and merciless vilification of those who don’t.)
  6. We often fail to see the humanity and unfinished process of those we want to emulate. People who write about personal development, spirituality, self-help, etc., and those who end up being therapists, coaches, etc. are usually doing so because they’ve done (and are still doing) a lot of personal work to fill the voids in their own lives and to heal their own wounds. That means that, even when they start to be seen as “experts”, they still carry some of their own pain into their work, because some of that pain just doesn’t let go no matter how much work you do. I, for example, wrote the original viral blog post about holding space not because I was an expert on relationships or had lots of people holding space for me (quite the opposite, in fact — three months after the post went viral, my unhealthy marriage ended, I left the church that no longer fit me, and I was quite lonely), but because I had a deep longing for better relationships and community, had some clear perceptions about what was needed, and was doing a lot of work to find what I needed. Since then, I’ve continued to work on removing myself from some of the unhealthy and abusive situations that were part of my past, healing the considerable amount of trauma that past relationships left me with, drawing in the kinds of people who genuinely know how to love and hold space for me… and, in the meantime, offering other people the hope of something better. That doesn’t mean that I’ve got it all figured out or that I want the mantle of “infallible expert”, but people are inclined to make assumptions about a person who’s published a book and have high expectations that they know everything. That can feel like immense pressure, especially when those old wounds are still occasionally triggered.
  7. We believe we have the right to unfettered expression of our views. In an era of social media, we are being primed to believe that we are entitled to express our opinions and judgement about everything and everyone, we have a right to the personal lives of the celebrities and influencers that we follow, and our fantasy people (i.e. celebrities/influencers who we see only as cardboard cutouts of themselves) don’t get to have any feelings or humanity when we criticize them or demand things of them. (Or we assume they’ll never see what we post about them.) Plus, especially in the middle of a pandemic, when people’s nervous systems are frayed, we’re all making mistakes and saying things the wrong way and reading too much into words on a screen that we wouldn’t react to as strongly if they were said to us in the context of a face-to-face conversation. That means that some of the influencers we follow (the fantasy people we objectify and don’t allow the dignity of honouring their boundaries or respecting their privacy), might need extra protection and space and that might mean that they come across as a little more guarded than usual. Unfortunately, there is often a cost to showing up differently than you have in the past and people don’t always respond well when boundaries change.

Put all of the above together, and it’s a lot of pressure for an imperfect teacher/influencer, especially if they are unsupported. Though some of it is definitely heightened by social media and a pandemic, it is not new. People have been projecting things onto celebrities, leaders and teachers since the beginning of time (just picture the screaming, fainting teenage girls greeting the Beatles when they arrived in the U.S.), and any time people put someone onto a pedestal, there’s a very good chance they will eventually need to tear them down when their expectations aren’t met. (I could tell you a long story of a woman who was once my employee who stood up in front of the board of directors when I was hired to rave about how I was “God’s gift to the organization”, and then later turned on me with a vengeance when I didn’t live up to her projection of me. When she was fired, for far more reasons than just turning on me, she convinced a lot of people of her victimhood, admitted she’d been keeping a notebook full of everything I’d ever said to her since the day we met so that she could one day use it against me, sent me long letters about what a horrible person I was, and filed a vicious lawsuit against me and my boss. More than a year later, after the lawsuit had been thrown out by a judge, she called me from a psych ward, where she’d been involuntarily placed, to tell me that it was my responsibility to hire a lawyer to get her out of there because it was my fault she was there.)

This year, after publishing a book and launching a new Centre plus several new programs in the middle of a pandemic, I’ve been feeling that pressure more than ever. Recently, when two of my daughters had simultaneous health crises and some of my old trauma got triggered, I cracked under all of the collective pressure of single parenting, business ownership, and being a teacher/influencer. It brought out the worst in me and I made some mistakes in how I treated people. In one of the dark and spiraling nights that followed, I thought “THIS is why people start cults. It is this kind of spiritual pain that causes them to snap into the kind of behaviour they might not have otherwise thought themselves capable of.”

Here’s what I think happens at least some of the times that people become cult leaders (or cult-like)…

A person with some wisdom and insight (and usually some charisma and leadership ability) begins to have influence and authority before they’re grounded, mature, and healed enough to handle the kind of pressure and responsibility that comes with it. People expect things from them and project things onto them and they feel unworthy of people’s expectations and go into high anxiety over letting people down. There may be some trauma in their body that shows up as perfectionism and they’re afraid to fail but don’t have enough self-awareness or knowledge to heal the trauma. They begin to crack under the pressure and make mistakes because of it, but the cognitive dissonance of trying to hold a belief that “I am a good person” simultaneously with the awareness that “I have done things that harm people” causes far too much pain for them to reconcile, so they reject it out of desperation and project the shame and blame outward at other people. (For more on cognitive dissonance, read Mistakes Were Made: But Not By Me.) Meanwhile, they don’t have the kind of community care that offers both love and accountability when they make mistakes. (Perhaps they’ve also been raised in an environment where they weren’t loved and/or taught to take responsibility for the consequences of their mistakes.)

They begin to construct their lives and communities in such a way that nobody can ever call them out for their mistakes, because those mistakes cause them far too much spiritual pain, and they expect people to put blind trust in them. Because they have no idea how to build healthy relationships, and don’t really believe they are worthy of those healthy relationships (and fear the accountability of them), they develop trauma bonds with people who follow them so that those people won’t abandon them. (A trauma bond can happen when the person in authority is the source of safety/belonging AND the source of greatest threat. For more on this, read the book Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems.) And then they isolate their community from the outside world so that nobody else’s criticism or accountability can be allowed into their bubble. They concoct a myriad of reasons why other people are dangerous and not to be believed in order to justify their own version of the “truth”. They might also claim to have special access to a deity so that it becomes even more difficult for followers to question them or hold them accountable.

Remember the Kony 2012 founder who, after his video went viral and then was quickly critiqued, had a naked and drunk meltdown in public? That was a man in a lot of spiritual pain over the intense pressure he was ill-prepared to handle. (I sincerely hope he’s been loved back into the light. Like so many of us, I believe his intentions started in the right place.)

Let me be clear about one thing, because I think it needs to be said… This is in no way about victim blaming. Everyone, whether they are a cult leader or influencer with an over-inflated view of their own importance, needs to be held accountable for any abuse, harm or predatory behaviour. And anyone who finds themselves in a position of influence or leadership where the pressure, expectations, and projections become more intense than they were prepared for needs to find a way to manage that and/or step away so that they don’t cause harm. (This is one of the reasons why I have recently taken a break from social media, am back in therapy, and will spend the summer on sabbatical.)

I share this not to excuse cult leaders or abusers for their behaviour, but to help us understand what goes on so that we can get better at recognizing the red flags, offering community support to those leaders who might be crumbling under the pressure, and taking responsibility for the things we might be projecting onto those whose work we admire.

Fortunately, I have a lot of guardrails and community care in place that won’t let me stay in the dark place, avoid accountability, or construct a toxic system that will protect me from my spiritual pain. I didn’t have a naked drunk meltdown or start a cult. I am very grateful that I knew enough to put the guardrails and community care into place before I needed them. I may not have experienced such dark places before, but I have also never experienced the abundance of fierce and grounded love I’ve received in the last few months from the core circle of people I called in for that purpose. (Ironically, I NOW feel like I have more expertise in holding space because I have built a life in which I am able to give and receive it much more fully.) The pain was intense, but the healing has also been beautiful. The abandonment/abuse trauma continues to ease out of my body bit-by-bit and is making way for new stories of unconditional love and community care.

So… yes, I think I know something about why people start cults or crack under pressure, but I also know something about what it takes to be grounded enough to avoid either. It starts with relationships and community and accountability and holding space. And it’s built on a willingness to look, without flinching, at your own shadow while trusting you will be loved in spite of it.

We can’t do this work alone. Leaders need circles of support and accountability, safe places to fall apart, and healthy boundaries that allow them time for rest and recovery. If you ever see a leader/influencer/teacher who does not have those things, see it as a red flag and look elsewhere for your guidance and/or check in with them about why those things are missing and what needs you (and others) can help them fill.

P.S. Want to learn more about how to hold space in ethical, anti-cult communities, and how to look into your own shadows so that there’s less chance you start a cult or get drawn into one? Check out the Holding Space Foundation Program — registration now open.