Do Cults Produce Mental Disorders?
by Mark Dunlop

My basic thesis is that with cults, it is the belief system itself which is the primary active agent in cult mind control, and the actual controlling of mind is done by believers themselves, as they train and discipline their own minds in accordance with the tenets of their new faith or belief system. The article tries to deconstruct the nature of 'cult-type' belief systems, and to analyze how they differ from 'mainstream' belief systems.

- Mark Dunlop
This is just a summary - to read the entire manuscript, go to: The Culture of Cults.

Here is a brief statement by Mark on whether cult involvement can create or encourage mental disorders, such as borderline or bi-polar disorders. - Editors

Cults promote a belief system which is utopian/idealistic, and also dualistic and bi-polar in nature. Dualistic in that they see the world in terms of two opposite poles, such as good versus evil, the saved and the fallen, the enlightened and the ignorant, etc.

Cult belief systems are also bi-polar in psychological terms, rather like Bi-polar disorder or manic-depression. Cults promote a vision of an ideal 'new self', which members believe they can attain by following the cult teachings. Cult belief systems encourage the aspirant to identify with this imagined ideal new self, and then, from the perspective of this new self, to see their old self as comparatively inferior and flawed. It is ego-utopia or hubris for the new self, and ego-dystonia or shame for the old self.

Believers can experience a sort of religious mania of inspiration, when they are in the hubris phase, identifying with this idealised imaginary new self, with its perfect perception and understanding, etc. They can become addicted to this hubris high, and become dependent on the group and its leadership to validate their spiritual progress and to maintain this inspiration.

There is often a sort of collective arrogance or hubris among established cult members. They see themselves as part of an elite, and look down rather sniffily upon the mores and values of established mainstream institutions.

If members fall out of favour, even temporarily, with the group leadership, or if they begin to doubt if they can achieve the group's ideals, they may experience a sort of religious depression or guilt, over their seeming inability to free themselves from their 'old self', with all its bad habits and weaknesses and lack of faith. This depression reinforces their desire to return to the inspired state, and can reinforce their addiction to the utopian vision of the cult belief system, so there can be a feedback system going on too.
At an extreme, believers fear they will become ill or fall into hell if they leave the group.

All this goes on within a cult members mind. A cult does not control its members by using external coercion. It is the belief system itself which is the primary active agent in cult mind control. The actual controlling of mind is done by the person themselves, as they attempt to discipline their mind and reform their personality, in accordance with the tenets of their new belief system. Effectively, a cult, via its belief system, uses a person's own energy and aspirations against them.

Of course, ordinary society can be a bit bi-polar as well, with its pressure to be successful, with perfect hair, lifestyle, etc.

It sounds like your girlfriend might have some pre-existing issues with self-esteem (don't we all ;) A cult can play on both her anxieties and her aspirations at the same time. They (or their belief system) can potentially make her feel both more guilty about her 'old self' with its normal human weaknesses, and simultaneously inspire her with an imaginary idealised vision of a wonderful new self and a new life. Very bi-polar.

In general, when you talk to a cult member, it can be helpful to understand which self, either the old self with its old set of beliefs or the new self with its new set of cult beliefs, is more dominant at any particular time.

If you criticise a cult member, this may just encourage their tendency to see themselves (their old self) as flawed, and may push them further into the cult. If you criticise their church or group, the cult-member will go into cult-self mode and will see your criticisms as tending to confirm the cult's warnings about the outside world and its negative effects. A better approach may be to acknowledge and encourage a cult member's old self, without criticising or threatening the new cult self. If a cult member feels valued in themselves, and their old self does not feel devalued, then this weakens the cult's attraction for them.

Read more by Mark Dunlop: (PDF)