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

“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).

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.

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Heather Plett

Author of The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. Co-founder of the Centre for Holding Space.