17 Signs You’re in a Cult (Or Just Working For Corporate America)
You’d know if you were in a cult, right? Wrong. That’s the thing about cults. Most people don’t realize they’re in one until they’re deeply entrenched and dependent on a social system that is harming, not helping, them.
One recent pop culture example: The Vow, a provocative HBO documentary about NXIVM, an Albany-based organization that was known for its ESP program. “ESP?” you say. “As in: extrasensory perception? Obviously a cult.” Nope. It stood for Executive Success Programs, and it was billed as a program that used business and communication tools to foster self-improvement. And it sucked in a lot of smart, sensitive people (many of them from the entertainment industry) who seemed to be doing just fine according to the average person’s standards.
NXIVM’s founder, Keith Raniere, had a background in business – and pyramid schemes. So it’s not surprising that he structured NXIVM like a company – with multiple brands and a board of directors. It seemed almost like a corporation – until one of the offshoots, called DOS, put female members on starvation diets, separated them into “masters” and “slaves,” and took them to secluded sheds to sear the flesh of their pelvises with Raniere’s initials.
Obviously, no one would have willingly signed up for this. That’s the thing about cults (or, as they’re more mildly know, “high-control groups”) – they start off seemingly innocent, then devolve into something sinister. So this got us thinking: how would you know you’re in a cult? There are some telltale signs. They’re also suspiciously similar to traits common to corporate America. Either way, if you’re in either of these environments, you better consider getting out – fast.
Cover Photo: A24
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You Get ‘Love-Bombed’
Everyone is so friendly! They stroke your ego and make you feel special. They really love you! (For a limited time only…)
The Leader Is Charming, Narcissistic…and Authoritarian
No one rose to power without a little bit of charm. If they were a jerk to everyone, right off the bat, no one would want to join their group. There’s a certain amount of schmoozing required to get people to join the group, and a honeymoon period once they're in. You later realize the leader is kind of an asshole, but he’s your (adorable) asshole…
Your Leader Has All the Answers
Your leader is billed as a rare and extraordinary genius who has insight you lowly humans could only hope to grasp someday. Not only is he intellectually superior, he’s morally superior, too. The company line is that there are no dumb questions, but the answers you get will leave you feeling like you’re an idiot for having asked in the first place. Critical thinking is discouraged.
The Leader Answers to No One
Not God, not the police, and certainly not the IRS. It’s as if the dude is his own deity.
The Rules Are Suffocating
You are told when to sleep and what to eat. The dress code is rigid. Your whereabouts must be constantly accounted for. You can’t even take a piss without having to report back to your superior. Communication with the outside world is discouraged, and when it happens, it’s always monitored. Your schedule is dictated by the leader, and it is unrelenting.
The Group Is Obsessed With Rituals
At first, it’s a handshake or a certain greeting. Then it’s a group chant. Soon, you’re participating in after-hours activities that only certain members are invited to. Some of these things strike you as odd, but you say nothing and attend everything. Before you know it, you’re sacrificing animals and partaking in gang bangs.
There’s an Intimidating Hierarchy
And you can only hope to one day reach the top tier, or the inner circle. Promotion is the carrot that the group likes to dangle in front of you. If only you work hard enough, prove yourself, give up enough nights and weekends and time with your loved ones, maybe, just maybe, you can advance up the ranks.
You’re Pressured to Recruit
The organization must grow, and you have to do your part to help. You’re expected to sing the organization’s praises and bring in fresh blood. As you do, your own rank in the organization rises.
You Have to Produce Collateral
Whether it’s identifying documents, your bank account information, the title to your car or home, it seems the organization is constantly trying to tether you to them by holding onto a piece of your financial life. And yet, for all you give, you get little in return. There’s definitely money funding this operation, but where it comes from and where it goes is a mystery.
You Become Distanced From Your Former Life
You used to have a girlfriend, a group of buddies from high school, a hobby. Now, you spend 24/7 on all things group-related. You might even move to be closer to your leader and fellow group members. You stop associating with anyone not involved in the group.
Group Identity Trumps Individual Identity
You are nothing if not part of the group. Who you used to be doesn’t matter. Now you’re part of something, and your participation depends on leaving behind what makes you unique.
You’re Expected to Represent the Brand
Whether that’s a hot poker burning your leader’s initials into your pelvis or just the expectation that you wear the company windbreaker even when you’re off the clock, the organization pushes visual signs of loyalty. The more merch you have with the organization’s logo on it, the more dedicated you are to the cause.
There’s Something Freaky Going On
Everyone is so touchy-feely. You know way more about people’s sex lives than you ever wanted to…and somehow they all involve the leader…who publicly claims to be "above" sex.
Leadership Insists This Is Not a Cult
Friends don't let friends join cults, right? (Wait a minute...)
Deviance Is Punished
If you question authority, suggest changes to the organization, voice an objection, or rebel in any way, you are mercilessly disciplined for it. You may get demoted, be publicly shamed, or physically abused.
Defectors Are Trash-Talked
And maybe even sued, or stalked, or otherwise harassed. If there’s one thing you don’t want to be in the group, it’s “the guy who left.” Those who leave are vilified, and ongoing friendship with them is forbidden.
You Start to Suspect You’re in a Cult
If you suspect you are in a cult (or just in corporate America), you probably are! Get. Out. Now. Then clear the decks. It's going to take a lot of therapy to undo the damage.
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