Culture Shock - The Challenge of Building or Rebuilding a Life

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Culture Shock - The Challenge of Building or Rebuilding a Life


Cultic groups operate on a continuum. Some groups are more closed than others. Therefore, the degree of difficulty people face leaving a group and reentering broader society varies. Also, the shock former members who joined groups as adults experience differs from that experienced by people born or raised in cults (second-generation adults, or SGAs), whose identity has been formed within and by the culture of group.

This paper provides an introductory exploration of culture and identity as they relate to the cultic experience. While we may think of culture and identity as two separate concepts, they are also linked because culture is the field within which identity is formed. Cultic groups operate on a continuum ranging from low control and isolation to high control and isolation. Consequently, the difficulty people face leaving a cultic group may be magnified if they are leaving a group on the far end of the continuum, where control and isolation are high.

Some aspects of culture shock, the difficulty former members face when they reenter society, are concrete and relate to daily functioning, such as being able to discuss popular culture, obtaining education, and seeking employment. Other aspects are abstract, yet critical, centering broadly on identity. Identity is impacted and shaped by culture. A sudden or drastic change in culture impacts identity in sometimes quite profound ways.

Not everyone involved in a cultic group will experience culture shock with the same intensity upon leaving the group, and some may not experience it at all. While former members who joined as adults may experience culture shock, it is significantly more profound for those SGAs born or raised in such groups. This shock will be exacerbated/moderated by the degree of control and isolation the individuals experienced while they were group members.


There are many ways to define culture, and culture itself is vastly complex. Kidd and Teagle (2012) offer the following definition: “In this interpretation, culture is seen as the cement that bonds individuals together. It is made up of shared or collective symbols and it shapes our lives. It gives us the rules by which to live our lives” (p. 10). Culture has many layers, including rituals, traditions, values, beliefs, role models, myths/stories, language, and symbols. Rituals, traditions, and symbols may be highly visible signs of culture, while values and beliefs may be an internal experience, more difficult for others to observe. Language, myths/stories, and role models have both an external component and a highly internalized component. In other words, others may hear or observe the above, but meaning-making is an internal experience guided by cultural values and beliefs.

Culture is not just our learned behaviors or our external presentation to the world. Culture also forms and impacts our identity and sense of our internal self. “To recognize that, as human beings, we are meaning-hungry creatures is to say that we are form-hungry creatures as well. The very concepts of self suggest as much” (Lifton, 1993, p. 91). Thus, culture informs every aspect of who we are and how we function in the world.

Culture in Cults

This concept of culture takes on another layer of meaning within high-control cultic environments because such groups explicitly value all things within the group and denigrate all things outside the group. In such groups, culture becomes not just a unifying experience, but a binding and restrictive experience. While it is true that in general people feel more comfortable within their own culture and are prone to some level of ethnocentrism, this limited perspective is greatly exacerbated within cults.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. These cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms, are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness (Oberg, 1960, p. 177).

Former members may struggle with some (or many) concrete aspects of culture, such as

  • Pop culture

  • Education

  • Politics

  • Finance

  • Employment

Pop Culture

Knowledge (or lack thereof) of pop culture is often a glaring sign of “otherness.” Many former members, both first and second generation, report experiences of being in conversation and not being familiar with a particular celebrity, movie, television program, or public figure being discussed. This is often an embarrassing experience and one that draws attention to a former member’s cultural difference.


Children raised in cultic groups may have no formal education, instead being homeschooled by their families or attending cult-run schools. In turn, they may not have obtained a high-school diploma. Upon leaving, it may be difficult for them to explain the lack of proof of schooling. In addition, even those raised in groups that allowed for formal grade-school education may have been prohibited by the group from pursuing higher education.


Second-generation adults may have no concept of the country’s political system. A democratic political system is very different from a cultic political system in which there is only one leader, and that leader is not chosen by or answerable to the members.

Those who became involved as adults also may find that the political structure and landscape has drastically changed since they first became involved with the group.


Second-generation former members may have had little or no contact with money and how it is used. They may have little experience with paying bills or managing a bank account.


High-demand groups vary in isolation from mainstream society. Some groups do not allow outside labor. Instead, members work in group-run businesses. Former members may not have employment history or references. Additionally, they may not have knowledge of the etiquette around interviews, resumes, cover letters, follow up, salary negotiation, and workplace behavior.

Other less concrete aspects of culture that may be problematic include

  • Language

  • Roles

  • Relationships

  • Power

  • Boundaries


Lifton (1991/1993) uses the term “loaded language” to describe a type of language that is highly reductive and eliminates further critical thinking. Additionally, words that may have one meaning outside the group can have a different meaning inside it. For example, when a person tries to discuss something that she is questioning or struggling with, she may be told that she has a “victim spirit.” This has a meaning known to members of the group and serves to definitively end the conversation without addressing the original concern. Upon leaving the group, communication for this individual can be very difficult.


Traditional roles within a cult may differ from those outside the group. For example, the role of a woman in a particular cult may be restricted to bearing children, serving her husband, and keeping house. In contrast, when she leaves the cult, that same woman is suddenly confronted with a myriad of other possible roles—wage earner, head of family, artist, public servant, determiner of one’s own fate

Further compounding the distress of differing roles is that often cults have defined some roles as evil or selfish. Former members may carry with them a certain cultural understanding of what it means to take on or reject certain roles, and this may not fit with the culture outside the group.


Appropriate relationships are often sharply defined within cultic groups. The leader(s) dictate romantic relationships, parent/child relationships, and friendships. For example, the leader(s) may make the decisions about who is allowed to marry and who is not. They may even choose the marriage partner. Child-rearing practices are often dictated by the leader(s) and allow no or minimal parental involvement. Friendships are often arbitrarily encouraged or discouraged. For example, former members of one group reported that the leaders would separate anyone who showed signs of developing close friendships or of confiding in each other.

Relationships may also be difficult to navigate after one leaves a cult because inside the cult everyone has a shared ideology and all-encompassing worldview. With this comes an automatic connection with others in the group. It is not necessary to “get to know someone” in the same way that one would outside a cultic group. Thus upon leaving their group, former members—both first and second generation—may struggle with how to make friends, how much personal information to share, and how to maintain healthy friendships/relationships.

Power and Boundaries

Power and boundaries are both salient issues for former members, especially in relationships. Former members may struggle with dependency because they are accustomed to relying on a leader to dictate every aspect of their lives. Former members have become accustomed to an external locus of control. Upon leaving, they may find themselves in relationships that mimic this dynamic.

Boundaries are those parameters that we put into place to maintain a healthy separation between self and others. Because boundaries are skewed or nonexistent within cultic environments, former members (especially SGAs) may struggle with understanding and establishing healthy boundaries. When one has not experienced respect and separation of self from others, it is difficult to suddenly establish those upon leaving the group. In addition, SGAs often report extremely close friendships with peers within high-demand groups. Friendships outside the group often feel distant in contrast.

This is a complicated issue; suffice it to say for the sake of this discussion that relationships, power, and boundaries are all deeply embedded in culture. Because these aspects of culture are so drastically different within cultic environments, the distress former members experience is significant.

Culture and Identity

One of the fundamental dialectics that is discussed in literature on cults is the constant struggle between forces of flexibility, change, and uncertainty, and forces of rigidity, stasis, and unchanging truths (Lifton, 1993; Fromm, 1941). Lifton (1993) referred to this as the struggle between the protean self and fundamentalism. Fromm (1941) referred to it as the dialectic of freedom and belonging. When freedom is restricted, there is a firm sense of security and belonging. In contrast, as freedom increases, the sense of belonging diminishes. In other words, as one moves toward being an I, one necessarily moves away from being a we. Many great thinkers/philosophers/scholars have tackled this intersection of culture and self. An exhaustive review of various philosophical viewpoints is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is helpful to keep in mind the relationship of freedom/flexibility and security/rigidity alluded to above.

The culture of cults is one of fundamentalism, which views chaos, questioning, fluidity, flexibility, change, creativity, and individuality as bad or evil. The cultic culture is one in which members are a we instead of an I. Absolute answers are provided, and members move on a rigid course to a defined end. The only acceptable deviations or changes are those provided by the leader, and the rigid course is then resumed. In a Bible-based cult, this may look like preparing for the ultimate battle between good and evil, or the Armageddon. Within cults there is no room for personal interpretation, spiritual seeking, or flexibility. Interpretation is solely the domain of the leader.

In contrast, the culture outside the cult, particularly American culture, is one that values the individual. There is rarely a we, and wes tend to be compartmentalized. For example, we may be a we in our profession but at an individual practice level we are still an I. People are generally able to easily articulate personal preferences, favorite foods, and individual interpretations of values, ideology, and doctrine. We can easily see this flexibility in many fields of culture: for example, various political commentators who take different stances on various issues, professional meetings in which different courses of action are explored, social media where people engage in debates about values and beliefs.

Thus, the culture shock one may experience upon leaving a cultic environment reaches the very core of the person. Particularly for those born or raised in such groups, the culture shock is a shock not only to their identities, but how those very identities are constructed and function. There is suddenly the expectation that one has an I. Thus, the second-generation former member, who knows only a collective we that cannot be carried outside the cultic group, must suddenly construct an I. This is a daunting challenge.

Understanding the Effects of Culture Shock

The effects of culture shock may vary depending on the person and the particular group. In general, the greater the difference between two cultures, the greater the culture shock will be. As discussed in the previous section, culture shock impacts the internal construction of the self and connection to others. Fromm (1941) termed this moral aloneness, and argued that this is the human being’s worst nightmare. One can bear many things when connection with others is present, but cannot survive the absence of connection. Moral aloneness is not necessarily tied to physical proximity. One may be physically alone but connected to others in a strong, shared ideology. In contrast, one may be surrounded by people but profoundly alone if there is no shared vision.

We may suggest that this moral aloneness is the most profound aspect of culture shock, both for adult former members and SGAs. The person leaving the cult must disconnect from the shared ideology or worldview. This is not to say that the process is so clearly defined or necessarily linear. Part of the process of disconnecting from the cult’s ideology may begin while the person is still in the group. Former members may also retain some of their beliefs and values from the cultic group for quite some time after leaving. They experience a nuanced, complex conflict between connection and disconnection along the pathway that begins with the thought of leaving and ends in full recovery.

Former members, particularly those born in the cultic environment, may develop two identities as a mechanism through which to cope with two vastly different cultures. This is often referred to as splitting. That is to say, one may create another self that “fits in” with the culture outside the cult. “As one Krishna Culture Kid described it, ‘[it is] like acting a role in a play but all the while knowing that this is not the real you’” (McCaig 2002, p. 23; as cited in Horback & Rothery-Jackson, 2007, Commonalities of Marginals, para. 19). The process of splitting is rather like that of a chameleon that learns to change its coloration to match the environment. This other self that has been constructed to fit in with the outside world often does not feel real. So although this helps the former cult member in concrete ways such as obtaining employment, making friends, obtaining education, and so on, it furthers the isolation the former member feels.

Culture Shock and Recovery

Culture shock is only one aspect of a former member’s experience. Adjusting to a new culture is a process, not an event. The goal of a former member’s journey is, in Robert Lifton’s words, ”to gain a new kind of freedom, one which enables us to realize our own individual self, to have faith in this self and in life” (1993, p. 106).

One of the most profound challenges of culture shock may be the moral aloneness, or sense of disconnection from the familiar worldview/ideology/spirituality of the old environment, and at the same time from the world around one in the new environment, that one experiences. Former members may be able to restore a sense of connection by getting in touch with other former members from their particular group. Many larger cults have ex-member websites, online support groups, and social-media pages. Former members may also find connection by going to various workshops and conferences specifically for former members. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in particular offers monthly support group meetings in various cities, an annual conference, and workshops throughout the year. Most notably, ICSA offers a weekend retreat specifically for SGAs. This is a place where SGAs from many different groups can come together and connect. They no longer have to hold on so tightly to the façade or the split self they have created to “fit in” the culture outside the group. It is a place where the self can be explored in safety and in connection with others who have had similar experiences.

Along with connection to others, connection to the new culture is important. That is not to say that the former member should embrace the culture outside the group and reject the culture of the former group. Rather, the goal is integration. Through critical evaluation of one’s self, one’s values, and one’s beliefs about life and the world, the former member asserts himself in the world. Lifton’s work (1993) offers hope,

While historical fragmentation of this kind can result in dangerous forms of fragmentation of the self (see chapters 9 and 10), it can also lead to impulses toward renewal. One’s loss of a sense of place or location, of home—psychological, ethical, and sometimes geographical as well—can initiate searches from new “places” in which to exist and function. The protean pattern becomes a quest for “relocation,” an effort to overcome spiritual homelessness. (p. 14–15)


Culture and culture shock are profound aspects of the cultic and post-cultic experience. They have far reaching implications for the human experience, ranging from impacting daily living to impacting identity or the self. This struggle is significantly magnified in second-generaton former members as a result of their disconnection from their “founding” culture and the difficulty in integrating all of themselves into the new culture. Because culture and culture shock exist in a relational system, recovery must also take place in a relational system. The wounds of disconnection cannot be healed in isolation. It is only through connection that this healing can take place.


Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Horback, S., & Rothery-Jackson, C. (2007). Cultural marginality: Exploration of self-esteem and cross cultural adaptation of the marginalized individual: An investigation of the second generation Hare Krishnas. Journal of Intercultural Communication (14). Retrieved from

Kidd, W., & Teagle, A. (2012). Culture and identity (2nd ed.). London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lifton, R.J. (1991). Cult formation. Cultic Studies Journal 8(1), 1–6. Retrieved from (reprinted from Harvard Mental Health Letter, 1991, Feb.).

Lifton, R.J. (1993). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McCaig, N. (2002). From Simmel’s stranger to the Krishna culture kid: Cultural marginality and the children of Hare Krishna devotees (unpublished research paper).

Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177–182 (reprint).