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REVEAL: The Crisis Line

How to Spot a Psychologically Abusive Group

Most new religions aren't psychologically or spiritually abusive, so you need to be able to tell an abusive church from one which is not.

People often get upset when family members or friends change their beliefs, especially religious beliefs. It is tempting sometimes to assume that the family member must be under undue influence, or they wouldn't have rejected the religious beliefs they previously held, perhaps that they were taught as children growing up in your family. It is important to be able to distinguish changes a person made voluntarily and with full freedom to decide from those brought about through undue influence.

To tell an abusive from a non-abusive religious group, look at what the group does, and in particular how it does it.

A new member of a religious group will normally take on some new religious duties. If these duties mean that he (or she) is suddenly neglecting significant responsibilities to his family, missing a lot of work, missing a lot of school, missing a lot of sleep, or not eating properly, there may be a problem. If this persists for more than a few weeks, the likelihood that a problem exists goes up -- a new convert's enthusiasm should not prevent him from tending to other areas of his life. Of course, the problem may lie in the individual being irresponsible, and not the group. But this kind of thing is a warning flag -- don't ignore it.

A stronger warning flag are significant shifts in personality. If a shy and reserved person suddenly starts acting like the life of the party all the time, ask yourself why. If an easy-going person suddenly becomes judgmental and demanding, look for reasons. If a person who preferred casual dress suddenly starts wearing three-piece suits or layers of makeup, try to find out what prompted the change. If you notice all of his new friends look, act, and talk the same way, ask who they are imitating and why.

One of the strongest warning flags is if you find a friend or family member is lying to you or withholding information they would normally give, for no apparent reason. If a roommate is suddenly gone every evening til late, tells you they're moonlighting or studying, and you find that instead they're meeting with a group of people you've never heard of, try to find out who these people are and what's going on.

Most ICC members are continually tired, because of the group's unrealistic demands on their time, stressed because of the abuse and high-demand lifestyle within the group, broke because the group takes most of their disposable income, and often malnourished because they can't afford the time to fix real meals or the money to buy real food. Especially among young, single disciples, five hours average sleep a night is normal, and inexpensive, unnourishing "fast food" (like "Top Ramen", a cheap instant noodle soup common in the United States, based on Southeast Asian traditional recipes) are often staples.

Finally, look for sudden changes in basic life direction and goals. A convert to a new religion may eventually make some huge changes, but this doesn't happen over night. If someone is prepared to quit college or a job and move across the country, or world, to work with a group he's been part of for only a few weeks, something is wrong.

If you see a pattern of these things, combined with the person suddenly having to check with someone else before making any major decision, there is a very good chance he/she is involved in the ICC or in some similar psychologically abusive group.

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