Working with Women Survivors of Cults

Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 145-154

Working with Women Survivors of Cults: An Empowerment Model for Counselors

Penny Dahlen, Ed.D.

Adams State College


This article offers an empowerment model for counselors to use when working with female survivors of cults. The author explores the power dynamics between the cult leader and member, and discusses how to not recreate this power dynamic in therapy. Empowering techniques such as building a trusting and safe environment, conducting a power analysis, and using daydreaming and role reversal are provided as means to facilitate the client’s recovery.

A common definition of a cult, used by scholars and policy makers, is as follows:

A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control...designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of the members, their families, or the community. (American Family Foundation, 1986, 119B120)

Singer and Lalich (1995) have identified the phrase “cultic relationship” to describe the processes and interactions that go on in a cult. The cultic relationship is that between the cult leader and cult members. In this relationship, the imbalanced power structure is significant. Cult experts have suggested that one common characteristic of a cult is that members swear total allegiance to an all-powerful leader who is self-appointed (Tobias & Lalich, 1994). The leader is viewed as the absolute authority, and members are manipulated into telling the cult leader personal information which may be used against them at a later time. Other commonly cited characteristics indicate that many cults are not supportive of the needs of women, children, and families. Yet, recent data show that cult membership is 60% to 70% female (Chambers, Langone, Dole & Grice’s study, as cited in Rosedale, 1995).

The characteristics of a cultic relationship have an impact on the female survivor in several ways. First of all, the woman’s sense of personal power and self-worth is destroyed. In fact, some cults use specific thought-reform programs aimed at attacking the members’ sense of self by sabotaging their basic consciousness, belief and value systems, and defense mechanisms (Singer with Lalich, 1995). Tobias and Lalich (1994) discuss the need for developing a cult personality in order to comply with the mind-manipulating techniques of the cult. They and others term this altered state of self the “pseudopersonality” (West & Martin, 1994). The woman’s sense of personal power is also demolished as her spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical freedom are manipulated by the cult leader. Singer and Lalich (1995) further indicate that cults often intentionally break up families, interfere with careers, ruin personal relationships, as well as take over money and other assets. With the loss of any kind of personal worth, family, or social support, cult members lose their total sense of personal power.

Understanding the cultic relationship is essential for counselors working with survivors of cults. Because of this power distortion in the cultic relationship, counselors need to be prepared to facilitate healing through a nonauthoritarian therapeutic relationship. Ideally, a counselor working with such clients is able to influence therapy in a positive direction if the counselor has clinical experience, a stable sense of self, and effective interpersonal skills (Classen, 1995). Counselors with limited clinical experience in working with former cult members, however, may feel overwhelmed and incompetent to assist with their clients’ loss of personal power and sense of self. An empowerment model will help therapists comprehend the delicacy of this therapeutic relationship, as well as provide a framework to facilitate growth and healing. For the purpose of this article, it is assumed that the client is already out of the cult and may have participated in some exit counseling.


The term empowerment has been used increasingly across social science literature and more recently in counseling (McWhirter, 1991). Empowerment refers to a comprehensive process where people who are powerless can become aware of the power dynamics at work in relationships, develop skills for gaining control over their lives, and exercise these skills (McWhirter, 1994). The concept of empowerment has been included in feminist therapy theory and models. Hawxhurst and Morrow (1984) define empowerment as the process of gaining control over one’s life and supporting others’ having control in their lives. They state that empowerment consists of

1. An analysis of power

2. An understanding of female socialization and sex-role stereotyping

3. The attainment of power at personal, interpersonal, and social levels

4. Advocacy for ourselves and others (p. 35)

The scope and nature of empowerment will be influenced by the context in which the empowerment occurs. In counseling, the context is the therapeutic relationship between the counselor and the client. Thus, the first step toward empowering survivors of cultic relationships is building trust within the therapeutic relationship.

Building Trust

Survivors of cultic relationships have experienced environments in which they were not mentally or emotionally safe; therefore, the counseling relationship needs to be safe and trustworthy for the client. There are several ways to build trust in therapy, including providing consistency (Pearson, 1994) and using encouragement (Classen, 1995).

By consistently responding to the client empathetically and compassionately, the counselor will earn the client’s trust, and a therapeutic alliance can be established. For example, one counselor explained that in her work with one client, she knew a safe environment had been established when the client stated, “This is the only place I feel I can tell what is going on with me without feeling like you are going to criticize me, manipulate me or hurt me.”

A safe and trustful environment for the client can also be built through the use of encouragement. Rencken (1989) mentioned encouragement as an important relationship-building technique. As a means of encouragement, counselors can emphasize the client’s strengths and survival skills. For example, one counselor said to a client, “You are so amazing to have survived so much, and I continue to see you grow and face these difficult issues.” Encouragement can also be in the form of supporting the client in her effort to explore and confront the cultic relationship issues, as well as recognizing her uniqueness and commonalities with other cult survivors.

Other forms of developing a trusting and safe environment include accepting and validating clients’ experiences (Josephson & Fong-Beyette, 1987). Counselor statements that have been effective for validating such experiences include the following: “You have been through so much and that takes strength,” “You have shared some important issues today and I feel honored that you are trusting me,” and “You have so much courage to continue to work on these difficult issues.” Finally, the counselor can ask the client: “How are we going to create a safe environment so you can work through these difficult issues?” or “What do you need from me to feel safe in here?” These types of questions empower clients by having them participate in the creation of a safe environment.

Power Analysis

Once a safe environment has been established, the counselor can, together with the client, engage in a power analysis. McWhirter (1994) suggested that a power analysis helps clients see how their life context kept them in a powerless position. Conducting a power analysis will help women see how they were kept oppressed by a dominant force (Worell & Remer, 1992). Survivors of cultic relationships can benefit from acknowledging how they were powerless in the cultic environment. This sort of analysis will help clients move from self-blame to putting responsibility for the abuse onto the cultic leader. Once they have accepted the powerlessness of having been in the cultic environment, clients can be encouraged for now taking responsibility for their healing.

An example of an effective power analysis is provided in the dialogue below. The client, “Joanne,” was involved with a religious cult for 7 years. At the time she joined, she had been experiencing a lengthy divorce; she was lonely, vulnerable, and trying to put her life together. She doesn’t remember exactly how she got so involved in the cult. The leader was charismatic and made her promises of love, family, and financial security. Joanne described the relationship as one in which she was terrified if she did not obey everything the leader told her. Demands ranged from sexual favors for the leader (and no one else), praying to him, and giving him all her possessions. Eventually, Joanne was able to leave the cult, and had had some exit counseling prior to therapy. In the following dialogue the counselor is conducting a power analysis:

Counselor: “When you were in the cult who had the power?”

Joanne: “Well, I never told him to leave me alone.”

Counselor: “Who was the powerful one?”

Joanne: “I guess the leader.”

Counselor: “It seems like you are reluctant to blame him for the harm he has caused you. It must be difficult for you to accept that what he did hurt you so badly and manipulated you.”

Joanne: “I should have been able to do something when this was happening.”

Counselor: “I can’t imagine myself being able to tell a leader such as the one you were with to stop. I can imagine you were very frightened. He hurt you and took away so much. I can tell how tough this has been on you and admire your courage. I wonder who has the responsibility for your healing now?”

Joanne: “I don’t know.”

Counselor: “Even though this has been very painful, it seems to me you are taking a lot of responsibility for your healing--like being here today.”

Joanne: “Yeah.” (starts to cry)

Counselor: “It is so painful.” (silence) “I can imagine how painful and frightening it must be to realize that you do have your own power now.”

This sample dialogue provides possible words that can be empowering. However, words alone do not give essence to the spirit of empowerment and conducting a power analysis in session. Empowerment is also a nonverbal way of being which indicates to clients that the counselor believes in their unique way of healing.

An empowerment model needs to incorporate both a personal, interpersonal, and social component, dealing not only with the intrapsychic functions but also the female client herself within the context of her relationships and social environment (Worell & Remer, 1992). Rosedale (1995) discusses special issues related to women when they emerge from groups. He states:

Sexual issues and sexual abuse have different implications and different aftereffects from some of the other experiences typically found in cults. If a man becomes involved in a group whose sexual mores are very liberal and unstructured, he might come out and say, “I slept with 12 women.” The woman who comes out of the same group and says “I slept with 12 men” will experience a tremendous difference in her social adjustment afterwards. Consequently, we must draw a distinction between men’s and women’s experiences as they try to resume conventional roles in society. (p. 191)

Eventually the former cult member will need to develop new relationships and a social network, and integrate back into mainstream society. For a time, the therapist may be the only relationship the survivor has, and it is important to empower the client to develop new relationships outside of therapy when she is ready. When a client begins to develop new social interests, encouraging her to conduct her own power analysis might be useful in preventing her from getting involved in other types of domineering and controlling relationships.

Control and Empowerment

The damage done to women in the cultic relationship is similar to that found in survivors of abuse by authority figures. In fact, in certain cultic relationships, the leader exercises sexual domination and control over the female members, implying that they have a “special” relationship with the leader and this relationship must be kept secret (Rosedale, 1995; Tobias & Lalich, 1994). Because of their client’s previous experience with domination and control, counselors are recommended to give clients control with regard to pace and direction of the counseling process (Brier, 1989; O’Hare & Taylor, 1983; Siegel & Romig, 1988; Westerlund, 1984). Giving the client control requires counselors to take themselves out of expert roles and allow the client to be the authority in session. Thus, the context of the therapy sessions needs to be egalitarian. McWhirter (1994) suggested that in order to empower others, counselors must give up aspects of power, such as control and immunity from criticism. Counselors must be willing to accept that clients may not always like something the counselor says in therapy. Counselors must be willing to process disagreements with the client. Sometimes clients will indicate their disagreement in nonverbal ways, such as breaking eye contact or manifesting anxious body language. Counselors must be intuitive enough to recognize when clients are disagreeing on nonverbal levels and address this with clients in such a way that they will feel safe to express their disagreement. Thus, clients will feel empowered to own their opinions and judgments.

Having clients take control in the session can be done through the use of the creative arts. Writing and drawing can be empowering modalities. Of utmost importance is that clients have the authority to decide which modality will be most helpful for expressing themselves. For example, it can be very helpful for the counselor to ask the client how she expresses herself most effectively. If the client enjoys drawing, encourage her to draw something that symbolizes or portrays her strength or courage, which she can hang in her room. One survivor drew a picture of herself and the cult leader, and then cut the cult leader out and tore him up while she told him that he couldn’t control her any longer. This process seemed to give the client a sense of taking back her personal power. By having clients take control during therapy, a parallel process can occur in which they will feel more in control of their lives outside the therapy sessions.

Working with the client to assist her in ridding herself of her cult pseudopersonality and regaining her sense of self can be done through a variety of methods. Encouraging the client to remember who she was prior to cult involvement can be done by having her daydream about the past (precult life): what she enjoyed, which activities she engaged in, what she thought about. Daydreaming is safer than using any other kind of imagery with cult survivors because induced imagery might have been a method used as one of the cult’s thought-reform processes (Singer with Lalich, 1995; Tobias & Lalich, 1994).

Having the client daydream about the past, and then helping her incorporate her former (precult) self into her current life can be beneficial to developing self-worth. Daydreaming about the future can be useful in helping the client gain some hope of life beyond the cult. For example, the counselor might suggest, “Let’s say that it is 3 years from now and you are not having to deal with this healing as much as you do now, what are some of your dreams? What does a day look like to you?”

Recovering from cultic relationships and feeling empowered takes time. It is crucial that the therapist be patient and empathetic throughout the process. However, if the therapist feels at an impasse with the client, a role-reversal technique might help. This technique would consist of the client becoming the counselor, and the counselor taking the role of the client. In order to be effective with this technique, the therapist shares a current therapeutic issue as the client, and the client as the counselor provides feedback. It is important to process what it was like for the client to take on that role, and also for the therapist to share what it was like to be the client. Role reversal can also be useful in helping the client determine if she is ready to cut back on or leave therapy.

The therapist who can be vulnerable and creative within the therapeutic relationship will be able to employ various techniques in an empowering manner. When the woman cult survivor begins to feel empowered, she begins to gain personal power and recapture her sense of self and recover from the devastating effects of the previous cultic relationship.


Working with female survivors of cultic relationships can be overwhelming and complex for any therapist. Once a trusting relationship has been established, clients can explore the context of the cultic influences in a safe environment. They can learn how they were manipulated into becoming a cult member, how thought reform worked in the cult, how the leader was self-appointed, and how their independent life was taken from them. The counselor who encourages and validates clients will help them believe in themselves and come to understand that they were powerless in the cult. They can learn how to get rid of the unwanted attributes of their cult pseudopersonality and head toward a genuine and authentic self. Now, as survivors, they can take power in their healing which can help increase personal power and self-worth. Thus, an empowerment model used in the therapy session will have lifelong impact on clients’ self-empowerment--which means empowerment coming from within the self--and ultimately therapy will no longer be necessary.


American Family Foundation. (1986). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 117B134.

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Blume, E. (1990). Secret survivors: Uncovering incest and its aftereffects in women. New York: Wiley.

Brickman, J. (1984). Feminist, nonsexist, and traditional models of therapy: Implications for working with incest. Women & Therapy, 3(1), 49B67.

Brier, J. (1989). Therapy for adults molested as children: Beyond survival. New York: Springer.

Brown, A., & Finkelhor, D. (1986). Impact of child sexual abuse: A review of the research. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 66B77.

Classen, C. (1995). Treating women molested in childhood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Faria, G., & Belohlavek, N. (1984). Treating female adult survivors of childhood incest. Social Casework, 65, 465B471.

Hawxhurst, D.M., & Morrow, S.L. (1984). Living in our vision: Building a feminist community. Tempe, AZ: Fourth World.

Josephson, G.S., & Fong-Beyette, M.L. (1987). Factors assisting female clients--disclosure of incest during counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 65, 475B478.

McWhirter, E.H. (1991). Empowerment in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69(3), 222B227.

McWhirter, E.H. (1994). Counseling for empowerment. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

O’Hare, J., & Taylor, K. (1983). The reality of incest. Women & Therapy, 2(2B3), 215B229.

Pearson, Q. M. (1994). Treatment techniques for adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Counseling and Development, 73(1), 32B37.

Rencken, R.H. (1989). Intervention strategies for sexual abuse (Report No. CG022806). Alexandria, VA: American Association for Counseling and Development. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 323B483).

Rosedale, H.L. (1995). Women and cults: A lawyer’s perspective. Cultic Studies Journal, 12(2), 187B194.

Siegel, D.R., & Romig, C.A. (1988). Treatment of adult survivors of child sexual assault: Imagery within a systemic framework. American Journal of Family Therapy, 16, 229B242.

Singer, M.T., with Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst: The hidden menace in our everyday lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tobias, M.L., & Lalich, J. (1994). Captive hearts, captive minds: Freedom and recovery from cults and abusive relationships. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

West, L.J., & Martin, P. (1994). Pseudo-identity and the treatment of personality change in victims of captivity and cults (268B289). In S.J. Lynn & J.W. Rhue (Eds.), Dissociation: Clinical and theoretical perspectives (pp. 268B289). New York: Guilford Press.

Westerlund, E. (1984). Counseling women with histories of incest. Women & Therapy, 2(4), 17B30.

Worell, J., & Remer, P. (1992). Feminist perspectives in therapy: An empowerment model for women. New York: Wiley.


Penny Dahlen, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counselor Education at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado. She is also a therapist at San Luis Valley Mental Health Center, where she specializes in treating people who have been traumatized by authority figures.