Adapted from Repairing the Soul After a Cult Experience by Dr. Janja Lalich.
I define an abusive group as a particular kind of relationship; it can be a group situation or between two people. Within that relationship there is an enormous power imbalance, but more than that, there is a hidden agenda. There is deception, manipulation, exploitation, and almost certainly abuse, carried out and/or reinforced by the use of social and psychological influence techniques meant to control behavior and shape attitudes and thinking patterns.
Such a group is led by a person (or sometimes two or three) who demands all veneration, who makes all decisions, and who ultimately controls most aspects of the personal lives of those who are cleverly persuaded that they must follow, obey, and stay in the good graces (i.e., in the grip) of the leader....
Such groups appeal to that part of ourselves that wants something better; a better world for others or a better self. These are the genuine, heartfelt desires of decent, honest human beings…..All such groups, no matter their stripe, are a variation on a theme, because their common denominator is the use of coercive persuasion and behavior control without the knowledge of the person who is being manipulated. They manage this by targeting a person's innermost self, eventually attacking, disassembling, and reformulating the person according to the group's desired image.
They take away "you" and give you back a group personality, a pseudo personality. They punish you when the old "you" turns up, and they reward the new "you". Before you know it, you don't know who you are or how you got there; you only know (or you are trained to believe) that you have to stay there. In such a group there is only one way--these groups are totalitarian, a yellow brick road to serve the leader's whims and desires, be they power, sex, or money....The crux is that leaders of such groups are adept at convincing us that what they have to offer is special, real, unique, and forever--and that we wouldn't be able to survive apart from the group.
A person's sense of belief is so dear, so deep, and so powerful; ultimately it is that belief that helps bind the person to the group. It is the glue used by the group to make the mind manipulations stick. It is our very core, our very belief in our self and our commitment, it is our very faith in humankind and the world that is exploited and abused and turned against us by such groups.
Further reading on how to identify a cultic church: