As we dipped our toes into the still-fresh waters of 2023, I took the time to do a little thinking. The past seven years had seemed so strange as to be fictitious, outshone only by the twenty-five-odd years that went before them. Although at the time, that life was all I knew. So how could I truly scrutinise my reality given I had nothing to compare it to?
Last year was bonkers. Among it all, there was a lot of talk in my private and unchurchable circles about the c-bomb. Cults. What are they? What defines a cult? What is their damage? When you look around in popular literature, you see a fair bit of chatter about the markers of cultism – things like love-bombing, control of information, decision-making expectations, shaming, shunning, demand for purity, and many other elements that link to coercive control. You also see a fair bit of commentary about the markers of a cult leader – things like a charismatic personality with a decent helping of narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder thrown in. And you know what, it’s possible that I will write about these things again later. But for now, I want to pay attention to something that’s been weighing on my little brain that sits adjacent to these troubling thoughts.
It’s a thing called a Cult Psuedo-Personality or Pseudo-identity. Essentially, it’s what happens when a person’s whole life and belief system become caught up in a high-demand group or cult. It is due in part to the intense nature of the influence cults wield over the person, and the fact that personal transformation is often part of the expected trajectory of a participant in the cult’s thought-reform process. Dr Gillie Jenkinson, PhD, cited this little gem in her investigation into the topic: “As part of the intense influence and change process in many cults, people take on a new social identity, which may or may not be obvious to an outsider. When groups refer to this new identity, they speak of members who are transformed, reborn, enlightened, empowered, re-birthed, or cleared [my addition: saved, surrendered]. The group-approved behaviour is reinforced and reinterpreted as demonstrating the emergence of “the new person.” Members are expected to display this new social identity.” [1, 2]
Dr Jenkinson’s commentary on the issue was one I found interesting. She recounted research by one of my favourite cult dudes, Robert Lifton, who suggested the cult pseudo personality is doubling, as well as other research that suggested it might be the development of a false self, or even simply dissociation. While all three of these hypotheses could be true, it’s helpful to first have a little bit of understanding of how personality and one’s sense of “self” develops.
What is Personality Anyway?
This could be the most rapid tour of personality development you’re ever likely to read. But for the sake of understanding the phenomena of cult pseudo personalities, here we go with the basics! The most popular line of thinking these days is that personality has five key aspects. The “Big five” as they are called, include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and my favourite, neuroticism. Openness is broadly defined as creativity and responsiveness to life’s only constant — change. Conscientiousness covers things like well, conscientiousness (circular reasoning is circular!). It also covers attention to detail and organisation. Extraversion is that old scale of socialness and expressiveness. Agreeableness refers to your ability to play nice with the other kids and be genuinely interested in them. And finally, neuroticism is all about mood and stability. Frankly, I think that last one is what makes a person truly interesting. But I’m a little fascinated by the human condition in general. People watchers, say what?
Beyond the big five, many theories exist. One of the big ones hails back to old mate Sigmund Freud. Yes, he was and remains to be a controversial sort. But some of his work still holds weight, and academic critiqiues of his work have certainly fed into more recent thinking on the development of personality. But…
He theorised that there were three elements to a structural model of personality: the id, the ego and the superego. The id is thought to be present from birth. It’s primal and drives us towards our most basic needs and urges . This, I suppose, could be thought of as the “nature” aspect of the “nature vs. nurture” debate in personality development. The ego is the next part, and it develops over time. It is “the aspect of personality charged with controlling the urges of the id and forcing it to behave in realistic ways.” So — when a baby is born it’s all id. Food, comfort, sleep, poop, repeat. As we grow, we learn to not poop ourselves in public. We learn to behave, not to throw tantrums (well, some of us learn this), and we learn how to interact with the society around us. Those primal urges and needs remain. But we keep it polite with a functioning ego.
Then there’s the superego. This is the seat of all our ideals, morals and values. Usually, it’s our parents and culture that play big roles in the development of this part of our personality.
So! While other theorists such as Piaget, Erikson and Kohlberg had thoughts about which key ages and stages exist in personality development, and how they flow together, my tiny, unqualified brain sees Freud’s id, ego and superego as well as the Big Five to be the most important in the cult pseudo-personality. Bookmark that. But first, let’s talk about a person’s sense of self.
What is the “Self”?
This is a complex question to answer succinctly, but it’s a phenomenon including more than 80 facets and the truth is that the “Self” develops over the lifespan and intersects with personality.  But there’s an irony that comes into our self-concept — we think about ourselves almost entirely in relation to other people. Our sense of self-concept is essentially our beliefs about our attributes – who, what and why we are. We are, of course, our neural circuits, our personality, our cells, and our thoughts, consciousness and the meaning we make of life. We are multifaceted. While personality can be a checklist and a few puzzle pieces that fit around each other, our self-concept is an onion that philosophers have been exploring for millennia.
Our self-concept can involve things like demographics: which group do I belong to? Who am I like? Who am I most unlike? What are my attributes and the things I like and dislike about myself? These things are what some call our “categorical” self.  For example, I am a late-30’s mother of two young kids. I am caucasian, of German, Irish and Scottish descent (I think). I am an exvangelical. I was raised in country Victoria, the eldest of five kids. I was homeschooled. I’m a brunette. I like red lipstick and love shoes. The categories about me could go on. The ways we identify ourselves start with the basic categories and then continue into the finer details of what makes us individuals as we grow.
Then there’s the existential self. Ooof. This is the part of me that is different and distinct from others. It’s my awareness of me. It’s my awareness of how I interact with the world. Included in our self-concept are our self-esteem and our self-image. While self-image is how we see ourselves, self-esteem is how we perceive our value to ourselves and others. We compare ourselves to others, gauge their reactions to us, identify ourselves within the context of others, and form our concept of social roles because of others. So there’s some irony in the term “self.” Because really, it involves so many other people.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of self-concept is that there is often a complex Venn Diagram that exists in our head: how much do our real self and our ideal self overlap?
What happens in cults then?
A cult is, by definition, a group that exerts significant influence over a person. Five aspects of cultism according to Langone can be seen below :
“A cult is a group or movement that, to a significant degree,
(a) Exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing,
(b) Uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices),
(c) Systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members,
(d) Exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and
(e) Causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community.”
So let’s bring it all together. Let’s say you’re an introverted, slightly change-avoidant and neurotic person with a high degree of conscientiousness and openness. You are drawn into this beautiful group of friendly people who promise you unconditional love and enduring purpose. Their ideas about the world fascinate you. You want to be part of it. You don’t realise you are being love-bombed, but soon you are in. Then you enter the thought-reform process. Some call it discipleship or mentorship. Others might call them accountability programs. You don’t care. It’s self-improvement and you are all for it. After all, how are we to reach this God-willed Utopia, this Heaven on Earth, unless we are all in? At this point, your personality is untouched. But your sense of self is gently changing.
How? You are now identifying as part of this group. Your friends are in it. Your purpose is in it, and your existential self is beginning to become intertwined with it. We don’t often reflect on the fact that the “self” develops and changes over time. So you don’t scrutinise the fact that your values, morals and ethics might be changing to assimilate with the group. Many cults have an emphasis on a certain way of viewing the world, and thus, continuing to be part of this group involves assimilation. The degree to which you internalise this and make their beliefs your beliefs is the degree to which your self-concept changes. “I am” a member of. “I believe” what they believe. And even “I am being persecuted because I am a member of blah and believe blah blah.”
Years pass. You marry into the group. You have kids in the group. You raise your kids according to the requirements of the group. You socialise, educate, discipline, evangelise and dream according to the will of the group or its leader. Your mood becomes influenced by activities within the group. In a high-demand group or cult, it is foreseeable that your whole self-concept could become swallowed up in a sort of group-think or hive mind. While aspects of you may remain distinct, the group’s characteristics become so important that it’s hard to extract yourself from it.
It has been said that “if you change someone’s perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, thinking strategies, emotions and behaviors (whether in a cult or in an intimate relationship) you have basically changed someone’s identity or personality.”  One theorist (Edgar Schein) talked about a particular mind control tactic as “Unfreezing, changing and refreezing.” I.e. You unfreeze a persons personality or sense of self by breaking the person down and getting them to doubt their reality or themselves, you change them via indoctrination and the installation of new beliefs, values, ideas and behaviours. Social norms in the group can feed into this. And you refreeze them by strengthing the new pseudo-identity and solidifying it over time. Group norms and expectations are hugely important to this process, so too is the thought-reform process. It’s also how entire groups of people can start to become more and more like their leader. Its literally developing a cult pseudo-personality.
But back to our example (which is just an example!)
Now let’s look at the personality. Remember how back in the beginning, you were introverted and didn’t like change all that much? You were also sort of neurotic? Well, guess what. On your journey through the thought-reform process, these areas have been highlighted as problematic. It’s the will of the leader and thus the expectation of the group that you subdue your introvesion and become more extroverted, less emotional and more open to change. This causes you significant shame and distress. You start to hate these parts of yourself and are constantly being pushed out of your comfort zone so you can “grow” and “become transformed” into this more enlightened version of yourself.
This is where a cult pseudo-personality starts to solidify. Aspects of who you actually are by nature are being replaced. The cult is starting to become the culture and sometimes even the pseudo-parental role that shapes the superego. You might feel pressure and shame every time you slip back into your “old” ways – so your natural personality according to the Big Five becomes less and less like who you really are, and more and more like what the group or the leader desires.
Thats why it’s not uncommon for cult members to assimilate towards a central personality and take on characteristics of the cult leader. After all, this is the great enlightened one, the one with the direct line to God. Why wouldn’t we imitate that?
It’s interesting. Someone asked me the other day if hypothetically I would be able to recognise who wrote a piece of writing from within a group I used to be part of. The truth is I wouldn’t. All I could tell them is whether or not it was authored by a member of that group. Why? Because linguistics can even be influenced by high-demand, totalitarian cultures. It’s called code-switching. Those who are imitating a certain leader switch their linguistic styles and mannerisms toward that central character’s styles and mannerisms. That gives rise to what Robert Lifton called “Loading the language.” A topic for another day though…
Shame + Cultism + Conformity + Time = Psuedopersonality. But what happens when you lose it all?
I hope I’m painting a picture of just how easy it is to literally lose yourself in a cult or high-demand group. Over the years since my exit from toxic evangelicalism, I’ve heard story after story about how women were shamed for being too emotional, too loud, too opinionated, too attractive or too “unsubmitted.” I’ve also heard of people who were naturally introverted being pushed towards extroversion which felt entirely wrong for them. I’ve heard of artistic or sensitive men who put off that part of themselves in favour of the group’s idea of ideal (cough *toxic* cough) masculinity. It’s funny how gender roles and ideas about emotions and extroversion often repeat across different groups wherever there’s a spiritual sort of bent to the high-demand group in question.
This is also a common story: “I’ve left the group. But now I don’t even know who I am, what I like, what my purpose is, or how I want to live my life.”
That feeling of being deeply and fundamentally unmoored — it’s awful. It’s scary. And if it’s you, you are not alone. So many people before you have gone through it, and so many people after you will go through it. It takes time to reclaim your pre-cult personality and develop your post-cult self-concept. There can be guilt and shame for having lost yourself in it — but I encourage you to be kind to yourself. The smartest, most confident people can find themselves in these situations because no one joins a cult. You are befriended by the nicest people you have ever met. Then you become aware of this amazing way of thinking that could change the world. You were seduced and entrapped in a thousand tiny increments, not in one fell swoop. Brainwashing is years not hours. Reversing it all is years not days. I wish I could fast-forward it for you. But all I can say is have fun with the rediscovery. And get a therapist. It helps.
Those of us who were born into such groups and raised within have a different journey ahead. How can you spot a single red flag when you were raised in a sea of them? How can you discover who you are when you were raised to be someone specific: formed and shaped for a specific purpose? When your purpose pivots to being free, happy, and healthy, you can still feel incomprehensibly lost when you ask even simple questions: is pink really my favourite colour? Do I really just like classical music? Am I really asexual, or just not attracted to the opposite sex? These questions can terrify us.
I’m sorry to say it, but the only way through is through. But plenty of us have made it through and I hope that boosts your deterination and self-acceptance.
The only thing you can do is find a good therapist, and try to enjoy the journey of self-discovery. Eat all the food and ask yourself if you really like each item. Listen to all the music and find what makes you want to dance. Watch every genre of movie or TV series and see what floats your boat. Don’t hate yourself for not having had the freedom to find yourself. Listen to your body. Listen to your breath, your heart rate, your gut…
But for the love of all that is good, get a therapist. That is my only solid piece of advice. Cult pseudo-personalities exist. But somewhere under all the layers of the onion is you. Still there. Still wanting to be discovered.
As to Dr Jenkinson’s question as to whether the pseudo-personality is the development of a false self, whether it’s dissociation so we can cope with the trauma of what we are living, or whether it’s us adapting to an incredibly controlling, coercive and demanding environment? Who’s to know? But over time I am certain of this: if it made one’s time on the inside more survivable, and if it meant getting to this day when one is again free to discover or rediscover who they really are, then we can’t look on it with anything but self-compassion. You did what you had to do, and became who you had to become. Onwards and upwards now, in health, hope and healing. Corny ending with the three H’s. I am unapologetic. Because I want all three for all of us. For me. For you. For everyone on their journey out, or trudging their way through the life after. We all deserve good things.
1. Jenksinson, Gillie (2008). An Investigation into Cult Pseudo-Personality: what is it and how do they form? Spiritual Abuse Resources. https://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/articles/an-investigation-into-cult-pseudo-personality-what-is-it-and-how-does-it
2. Singer, M. T. (2003). Cults in our Midst. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA. Pp. 77-78
3. Cherry, K (2022). The Psychology of Personality Formation. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/personality-development-2795425
4. Thagard, P (2008). What is the Self? You are a System of social, psychological, neural and molecular mechanisms. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/hot-thought/201406/what-is-the-self
5. McLeod, S (2008). Self Concept. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/self-concept.html