Steven Hassan: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs
Table of contents
Almost everyone knows a controlling person, and many people know someone who is stuck in a controlling relationship.
But few people know the mechanisms controllers use to gain undue influence over others. Fewer still know how to effectively help a loved-one gain back control over his or her own life.
Yet when someone you know is caught up in a high-control situation — be it anything from an abusive relationship to involvement in a destructive cult or an abusive church, you want to help that person.
There is a lot you can do yourself, but you will also need professional advice and services.
That’s the premise of Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs [Kindle Edition], by cult expert Steven Hassan.
Himself a former cult member, Hassan draws from 36 years of experience in educating people about mind control and destructive cults.
As a licensed Mental Health Counselor — with a Master’s degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and certified as a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) by the National Board for Certified Counselors — Hassan has helped countless people gain back their freedom.
In 1988 he authored Combatting Cult Mind Control, the critically acclaimed “#1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults.”
That book was followed in 2000 by Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People To Think for Themselves, which was also well-received. In it, Hassan introduced a non-coercive approach people can employ to rescue their friends and loved ones.
Freedom of Mind is the updated version of that book. While it includes much information that can also be found in his earlier books, it is not a rehash, but rather the product of a natural evolution that shows Hassan continues to fine-tune his methods. He applies lessons learned in his counseling practice, and adopts information gained from his interaction with other cult experts and mental health professionals.
It is a practical, hands-on book meant in the first place for people who, as the subtitle indicates, want to help loved ones leave controlling people, cults and beliefs.
Hassan starts out by providing basic information about cults — including common denominators, the four main types of cults (religious/spiritual, political groups, therapy/large group awareness training, and commercial groups), as well as some terminology.
Speaking of which, inspired by his “friend, colleague and mentor” Alan Scheflin, professor at law at Santa Clara University, Hassan has started using the term ‘undue influence’ or ‘undue social influence’ instead of ‘mind control‘ or ‘brainwashing.’
That’s a good move. ‘Undue influence’ is a legal term, and much less open to interpretation than other terminology.
Hassan says that Scheflin, an expert on legal ethics, memory, suggestion, hypnosis and mind/behavioral control, “has developed a model showing social influence on a continuum — from the relatively harmless type we find in advertisements to the most extreme, dangerous cults.” [p 218]
“There is nothing inherently wrong or evil about influence,” Hassan writes. But it is important that we “recognize social influence and decide whether it is, in a particular instance, being used neutrally or as a force for good or for evil.” [p 218]
By using examples gleaned from counseling cases he has been involved in, Hassan shows among other things how people are deceptively recruited, indoctrinated and made dependent through the use of psychological influence.
In the next chapter he enlarges on this by examining the question, “What is Destructive Social Influence?” Hassan explains what he calls his BITE model for understanding destructive influence. By manipulating control of Behavior, Information, thoughts, and Emotions cults gain control over a person’s identity.
He notes that one universal concern of family and friends of someone caught up in a cult is their loved one’s radical personality change. Using his own experience as an example, Hassan says, “When you are with someone in a cult, it is difficult to talk on a rational level. After I joined the Moonies, my family and friends did not recognize me. When I refroze into the cult identity, they could no longer communicate with me.” [p 31]
‘Refroze’ is in reference to psychologist Kurt Lewin’s model of thought reform: Unfreezing: breaking a person down. Changing: indoctrination. Refreezing: reinforcing the new identity.
Such information is important to people who wish to understand why a loved-one has joined a cult, what causes someone to remain there, and why he or she has undergone a significant change in personality.
Strategic Interactive Approach
The core of the book is devoted to the Strategic Interactive Approach (SIA), the method Steven Hassan has developed for building a support network of people who can together encourage a cult member to return to their loved ones.
The SIA promotes changes and growth in the family as well as in the cult member. The underlying idea is that someone who joins a cult may well have done so in response to issues experienced within the family — either to escape a situation or to find something that he or she thinks was lacking.
When first introduced, in Releasing The Bonds, this was called the Strategic Interaction Approach. The subtle name change indicates the fact that Hassan’s method has evolved into a more dynamic process.
In the years since he first introduced the SIA he noticed that people often still need an experienced outsider to guide them in the process.
Consequently, he has taken the focus off interventions and onto in-person “preparation meetings,” which empower family and friend through coaching to open lines of communication with their loved one, rather than to try to get the cult member to agree to a formal intervention.
It should be noted that among cult experts there is no such thing as a single agreed-upon approach to helping people break free from undue influence. People leave cults or other high-control situations in various ways, for a variety of reasons. Some are helped in that process by friends and family members, all or not with the aid of a professional counselor or cult expert. Others simply ‘walk away.’ Some need a lengthy period of counseling. Others find a way to chalk it up to experience and move on with their life within a short period of time.
That said, the SIA approach is beneficial regardless of how deeply someone is involved in a destructive cult or another type of abusive relationship.
It creates opportunities and options by drawing on the resources, skills and knowledge of everyone involved. In this approach, Hassan explains, friends and family members make progress one step at a time through mini-interactions — phone calls, letters, email, or face-to-face visits.
The focus of the SIA is on the growth of the family and support network as well as on the cult member. Hassan writes, “When each family members is responsible for growth and change, the cult member’s perspective changes. Instead of, I’m the victim, and everyone is here to help me, it’s We’re a family, and everyone is growing and learning.“
Note, too, that the support network remains long after professional counselors are gone. In many cases it takes people who have been involved in cults months or even years to re-adjust to life outside the group. Many feel isolated and alienated when friends and family members do not understand the impact their cult experience has made. It is therefore vitally important that the former cult member has the support of well-informed, loving people he can call upon.
Deprogramming and Exit Counseling
Deprogramming often involved kidnapping, forced detention and coercion. The idea was that if someone was brainwashed against his will into a cult, he should be deprogrammed — necessarily also against his will — out of it. Having his mind freed from the cult’s indoctrination, that person would then be thankful for the rescue. Aside from the fact that this approach often included illegal activities, the method itself was flawed in that it countered coercion (“brainwashing” and “mind control”) with coercion.
Exit counseling is a voluntary procedure in which the cult member decides whether he wants to attend a meeting, listen his family’s concerns and receive information that would help evaluate his group or beliefs, and decide whether or not he wants to remain a follower.
According to Hassan, while Exit Counseling is a huge improvement over Deprogramming, the results are often less than optimal because, he says, the “method does not take into account the problems that may have existed before the cult involvement and which may persist. It doesn’t deal with psychological issues in the cult member or in the family.” [p 42]
Specifically, he says “few people understand that cult indoctrination superimposes a new identity that suppresses and controls the individual’s authentic identity. Relatives and friends may think they are having a conversation with the person they have always known when, in fact, they are probably addressing the cult personality.”
Throughout the book, Hassan talks about a person’s pre-cult identity (before recruitment), a cult identity (during membership), and a post-cult identity (after leaving the group).
According to Hassan specialized knowledge and training are required to effectively promote healing, so that the former cult member can regain his own personality rather than the ones shaped by the cult
One chapter of Freedom of Mind teaches how to interact with dual identities, and another deals with communication strategies.
These include important tools that can be used not only to help people caught up in cults, but also to reach those who are stuck in other abusive relationships — such as those involving domestic violence. (Professionals have long noted the similarities between the psychological responses of cult members and victims of domestic abuse).
Another chapter deals with phobias — unfounded fears — and how to unlock them. Cults members are often led to believe that something bad will happen if they ever leave the group: you will lose your eternal salvation; you will never achieve enlightenment; you will never be happy; you will be rejected by your family… and so on.
Hassan says he has taught clients and other mental health professionals a three-step phobia intervention method. “Although a trained therapist will have better sucess when implementing this approach, a well-prepared family member can do it as well.”
The intervention meeting — if actually needed — can last up to three days, and is preceded by a two-day preparation meeting.
Hassan writes that, “although a book like this can be an invaluable resource, the ideal situation is to have a two-day preparation meeting with me or an FOM consultant.”
FOM stand for Freedom of Mind. As part of his Freedom of Mind Resource Center, Inc., Hassan works with a number of consultants trained in his SIA approach.
The preparation meeting includes family, friends, and other trustworthy resource people (a pastor, perhaps, or a counselor or legal professional).
This meeting is a crash course in all things the participants need to know about about undue influence, cults, and phobias. It gives people a taste of the kinds of information that will be shared with the cult member during the actual intervention.
Team members also learn and practice, through role-playing, the kinds of communication techniques described in the book and customized for their loved one.
The things learned should results in “mini-interactions” with the cult member, in which rapport and trust is build up so that over time he or she will seek out more information and eventually act upon it.
But, says Hassan, “If after many interactions your loved one is still firmly entrenched in the group, you may want to consider a formal, three-day intervention. This decision should be made very thoughtfully because, if it goes well, it will be wonderful. But, if it doesn’t go well and the individual does not agree to stay and listen and learn, it can cause major rapport and trust issues. Interventions should only be attempted when there is a pressing reason to do them and should be done with professional consultation.”
Hassan says that in his experience it is “very difficult, to almost impossible, for inexperienced people to plan and implement a successful intervention,” and that in reviewing the process readers will see the crucial advantages of working with an experienced consultant.
He then describes the process of how an intervention is planned and held with the aid of himself or another FOM consultant.
Hassan acknowledges that “the costs associated with helping a loved one in a cult can add up quickly, and money often becomes an obstacle,” but argues that although financing an intervention may seem difficult, there is usually a way to make it possible.
Reality is that professional help — be it from a plumber, car mechanic, physician or a counselor — comes at a price.
It should be noted that Steve Hassan also does pro bono work, and invests many hours of unpaid activism to educate the public about cults and related issues.
In any case, anyone wishing to help a friend of family member leave a cult or another abusive situation will find a wealth of information in Freedom of Mind.
Call to Action
Hassan uses the final chapter of Freedom of Mind for a call to action, encouraging mental health professionals, lawyers, and politicians to become aware of the influence of cults and cult-like organizations, and where possible to take action. He also calls on the the media to keep reporting on cults, not by focusing on “wacky beliefs” but instead on their coercive techniques. “Stories typically do not delve into how intelligent people are indoctrinated,” he writes.
Endnotes are included in the book, but the extensive bibliography is not. Rather, it is available online at Hassan’s website — an increasingly common approach in today’s rapidly changing world of publishing.
In our own work and ministry, Janet and I have seen the effectiveness of Hassan’s latest book — as well as his previous works — in helping people understand those who are involved in cults, abusive churches, or abusive relationships.
We have also seen the information used — usually successfully — in helping people get out of such situations.
Freedom of Mind will be appreciated by cult experts, mental health professionals, and others who interact with people involved in cults of other abusive situations.
He lives and works in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with his wife, Janet. They are involved in helping people leave cults, abusive churches or abusive relationships.
Anton’s interests vary from Christian apologetics to street photography. He’s a coffee connoisseur who grinds his favorite coffees with an antique, cast-iron #3 Spong for use in either a stove-top Bialetti, a french press, or the Aeropress.
Related topic(s): Cult Experts, Freedom of Mind, Steve Hassan
First published (or major update) on Friday, February 1, 2013.
Last updated on July 04, 2023. Original content is © Copyright Apologetics Index. All Rights Reserved. For usage guidelines see link at the bottom.