Cognitive Distortions

Book Cover

This is an excerpt from Take Back Your Life, by Dr. Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias. This is probably the best book out there to help figure out what constitutes a cult and how to recover if you have been in one. The third edition paperback and audio will be out November 7, 2023.

Cognitive therapy operates on the basis that by changing the way we think we can have a profound effect on the way we feel. Ten common mistakes in thinking are identified as cognitive distortions. In the book these distortions are explained in the context of postcult recovery. In this excerpt the word 'cult' has been replaced with 'totalistic group'.

All-or-nothing thinking

Totalistic groups teach black-and-white thinking, such as, “Everyone outside the group is controlled by Satan or is evil,” “The leader is God and cannot make mistakes,” “You must always strive for perfection in order to reach the group’s goal.” Such thinking stifles personal growth and keeps a person pitted against the rest of the world.


Simply making one mistake can cause a person to leap to the conclusion that the group’s predictions about dire consequences for those who leave are indeed coming true. Former members often have difficulty allowing themselves to make mistakes without hearing criticisms in their head. Reviewing actions at the end of the day, no matter how simple, can help counterbalance the internal “chatter” of the totalistic group.

Mental filter

Totalistic groups teach people to dwell on their mistakes and weaknesses. In many groups each day’s activities are reviewed, with concentration placed on any “sins” or wrongdoing. All thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are cause for criticism, prayer, and repenting. After such training, a person may obsess about a small mistake and lose sight of the positive things that are happening. Anything negative becomes a focus that filters out everything else.

Disqualifying the positive

One means of totalistic group control is to not allow members to take pride in their achievements. All that is good comes from the Leader while members are made to feel stupid and inadequate. Making lists of personal strengths and accomplishments may counteract this reaction.

Jumping to conclusions

There are two forms of coming to a negative conclusion, which are probably familiar to ex-members: (a) Mind reading: This is used to make assumptions about others. Don’t jump to conclusions about another person’s actions or attitudes. Don’t substitute assumptions for real communication. (b) Fortune telling: Totalistic groups predict the failure of their critics, dissenters, and those who leave. Former members sometimes believe that depression, worry, or illness is sure to hound them (and their family) forever. Remember, such phobias and distortions have nothing to do with reality but have been instilled by the totalistic group.

Magnification (catastrophizing) and minimization

Magnifying the members’ faults and weaknesses while minimizing strengths, assets, and talents is common. The opposite holds true for the leader. This trend has to be reversed in order to rebuild self-esteem, although reaching a balanced perspective may take time. Feedback from trustworthy, nonjudgmental friends may be helpful here.

Emotional reasoning

In groups that place emphasis on feeling over thinking, members learn to make choices and judge reality solely based on what they fee. Interpreting reality through feelings is a form of wishful thinking. If it really worked, we would all be wealthy and the world would be a safe and happy place. When this type of thinking turns negative, it can be a shortcut to depression and withdrawal: “I feel bad, worthless, and so on, therefore I am bad, worthless, and so on.”

“Should” statements

The  beliefs and standards of the totalistic group often continue to influence behavior in the form of shoulds, musts, have-tos, and oughts. These words may be directed at others or at oneself—for example, thinking, “I should get out of bed.” The result is feeling pressured and resentful. Try to identify the source of these internal commands. Do they come from the former group leader? Do you really want to obey him anymore?

Labeling and mislabeling

Ex-members put all kinds of negative labels on themselves for having been involved in a totalistic group: stupid, jerk, sinner, crazy, bad, whore, no good, fool. Labeling oneself a failure for making a mistake (in this case, joining the group) is mental horsewhipping. It is an overgeneralization, inaccurate, cruel, and, like the other cognitive distortions, untrue and self-defeating. Labeling others in this way is equally inaccurate and judgmental. If there must be labels, how about some positive ones?


This distortion has been called “the mother of guilt.” A primary weapon of mind control is training members to believe that everything bad that happens is their fault. The guilt that accompanies this sort of personalizing is crippling and controlling. You are out of the group now, so it is important only to take responsibility for what is yours.

These ten cognitive errors are all habits of thinking that are deeply ingrained by the thought-reform processes and group indoctrination. Tendencies toward these distortions may have been in place even before a person’s group involvement, which may have enhanced vulnerability to recruitment and increased susceptibility to the group's practices. Given the habit of these kinds of destructive thinking patterns, is it any wonder that former members sometimes feel depressed? The good news is, like any habit, these patterns of thinking can be broken and discarded through awareness and practice.

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