Six Signs You're in a Self-Development Cult

  No group considers itself a cult. What does that say about organizations who seem to be misusing their power to adjust people's perception of reality?

No group considers itself a cult. What does that say about organizations who seem to be misusing their power to adjust people's perception of reality?


In my search for a better way to understand the world and myself, I have encountered certain groups that triggered a bad gut feeling I couldn't fully explain.

These groups offered training for awareness, facilitation, coaching or leadership, and usually had a subtext of mysticism or spirituality. Yet they called themselves a “foundation” or “institute.”

While I thought I was proceeding along my path of self-development, healing and empowerment, in these groups I also incurred sizable damage to my confidence and clarity.

I don’t believe that any group would intentionally call itself a cult. Still, many groups are indeed cult-like.

Followers lose a sense of their personal boundaries, assuming that it’s a safe space for ‘transformation.’ In fact it’s inherently unsafe, since the group’s boundaries and rules are poorly defined as well.

What I think of as a self-development cult (or guru club) can happen when a theory of everything is combined with charismatic personality and old-paradigm business practices, whether or not it’s intentional.

I want to share what I've learned in hopes that those on an earnest path of personal and professional development can avoid the same pitfalls.


1) Followers talk about a leader using words like, "He's just so amazing," with a dreamy glow in their eyes and a sedated tone of voice.

— Why: This is a sign of worship—that the followers have begun to put the leader on a throne. The supporters are surrendering the ability to think for themselves and letting the leader do it for them.

This basic effect can happen whether a guru is preaching about spirituality, marketing, politics, or something else.

2) Followers are rewarded for outward displays of emotion, such as heavy crying or telling deep personal secrets, in front of a group of near-strangers.

— Why: Elsewhere people doing this would, in most cases, be labeled as too emotional, unstable, etc.

Followers lose a sense of their personal boundaries, assuming that it's a safe space for "transformation." In fact it’s inherently unsafe, since the group's boundaries and rules are poorly defined as well.

Events might be recorded by the leaders or followers, without adequate explanation for how footage will be used or discussion about confidentiality.

3) Proponents (both leaders and followers) often push back with threatening words and gestures if someone tests their way of viewing things.

— Why: This is the core of fundamentalism—being so mentally frozen that to even introduce the possibility of questioning or criticizing the belief system (dogma, ideology, etc.) triggers visceral defensiveness and punishment.

Then to point out that a punishment happened, and why it happened, will only elicit an unaccountable, confusing response from leaders or further punishment (often behind the scenes).

4) The deeper followers go, the more disoriented they feel, instead of having a more coherent grasp of the system and life as a whole. But it's implied that after just a little longer, the follower will understand it all and be granted master status.

— Why: The business incentive is to keep followers paying for group membership—rarely an official thing, but just services that grant them social acceptance in the club.

A conflict of interest arises, because followers becoming more independent and empowered would threaten the organization's profitability or even existence.

To boost proprietary value, leaders might re-define terms from other systems without giving credit, repeatedly create new terms in their own system to refer to the same things, or change their focus on a regular basis and keep claiming that they found "It."

5) All experiences and situations are categorized using theory and jargon. Every part of life gets reduced to "stages," "types" etc.

— Why: This takes attention away from the direct embodied experience, which is the real way that followers would learn how to optimize and trust their own logic and intuition.

A theoretical system can start to seem like the point and not just one map for navigating the infinite territory of life. Soon it becomes difficult for people to think, speak or act without using something a specific system sold them.

And in a way, what the leader says isn't as important as the spellbinding effect that their rambling has on the audience, and how that reinforces the leader’s position of power.

6) The group’s worldview is fringe enough that to depart from it would cause great distress for the follower.

— Why: Both the follower's way of interpreting reality and sense of social belonging become tied to the group. Since these exist in an exclusive place (due to secrecy, cost, eccentricity etc.), it increases dependence on the group.

Unusual behaviors reinforce a contrived sense of intimacy. For instance, leaders might close emails and other messages with “Love” before their name, even if they just met the recipient a week ago.

If the question starts to arise within the group of whether they are a cult, then something is already wrong.

The whole point of healing, self-development, and training to become a facilitator or holistic practitioner is to be more grounded, centered, and functional; to be able to think and express oneself clearly; and to be in touch with one’s life mission and purpose.

If you’re not getting these things from a group’s classes or seminars, this could be a sign that it’s time to leave the group. Trust your gut and do what feels right to you. You may find that with real healing and self-development comes a sense of being connected with your own inner guru.