5 simple ways to tell if an organization/group of people is healthy

Is this group healthy? 5 simple ways to tell


All of us encounter unhealthy groups – or unhealthy leaders – multiple times in our lives. There’s a lot of them out there, whether you’re talking about full on cults like the Moonies that use deceptive recruiting tools, or lesser known groups that can cause just as much damage through using the same playbook of power and control tactics. The recent spate of cult documentaries attests to the fact that we’re all interested in this phenomenon. From religious cults to yoga groups to self-help organizations to Q anon…we encounter folks in these groups every day.


So how can you tell if a group is healthy or unhealthy? 


Here are a few simple rules of thumb to keep in mind when you have joined a new group. Remember, it’s a good idea not to rush into group membership just like you wouldn’t rush into a romantic relationship first. Get to know the group, get to know its members and leadership, and take as much time as you need for your discernment process.


  1. Ask yourself, “What happens if I say no?” Let’s say you have joined a new yoga group. You’re attending multiple times a week and thinking of doing a teacher training. Everyone seems so happy and enthusiastic!

    What happens if you decline the teacher training, can’t attend sessions for a few weeks, have to withdraw from a class because your spouse got sick, or can’t volunteer to help clean the studio like everybody else does? At some point, you will have to say no to any group you join, whether it’s your workplace, your church, or a new relationship. How does the leader of the group (or the new significant other) react when you say “No?” This can give you a lot of helpful information. If their reaction is in any way to shame you for saying no, gaslight you into saying yes, or scare you into saying yes, those are red flags. If they simply express disappointment but they are understanding or respect your boundaries, that’s a good sign.
  2. How are women and children treated in the group? In the infamous Bikram yoga group (check out the great documentary on Netflix), the leader was sexually harassing his students and pressuring them into sleeping with him behind the scenes. Although new members wouldn’t have known this right away, how he treated women was pretty obvious by some of his comments and his overall attitude in classes.

    If women are subservient in a group, treated as “less than,” this is a huge red flag that this group is really about amassing power and control (often via money and sex) for the leader/s. And, pay attention to how children are treated in the group. In some Christian high-control groups, leaders encourage parents to use strict corporal punishment, for example. Huge red flag. Children cannot protect themselves; adults need to protect them. The long-term mental health and emotional negative effects of corporal punishment are the same as the long-term ill effects of physical abuse.
  3. Do leaders seem more interested in creating obedience than in helping people? Pay attention to how shame and fear are used within the group. If leaders call people out publicly for mistakes in a shaming way, this is a red flag. If leaders tell a story about how only this group can solve your problems, this group has the only answer to whatever your existential questions are, these are red flags.

    This is especially common in unhealthy religious groups. Leaders preach fire and brimstone theology in order to shame and scare people into becoming obedient followers who don’t trust their own instincts and feel like there is something horribly wrong with them. They become “sinners in the hands of an angry god,” not individuals worthy of love, respect and belonging no matter what.
  4. Finally, review what the experts have to say about signs of high-control groups or mind control. I recommend checking out Steve Hassan’s work on the BITE model and Robert Lifton’s work on mind control. Here’s a little preview of each. 
    1. The BITE model reflects 4 quadrants in which high-control groups will exert control over their members – control of behavior, information, thoughts and emotions. 
    2. Lifton created a list of signs of mind control after studying survivors of totalitarian thought reform in China in the 1950s. These include an “us versus them” mentality, a “sacred science” (dogma that cannot be questioned), milieu control and others. Check out more about Lifton’s work here.
  5. Overall, listen to your instincts. Your gut is often a wonderful gauge of whether something is unsafe in an environment. For this reason, one tactic of high-control groups is they encourage you to ignore your gut, ignore your feelings, and just do what they say. But you can recover this by just checking in with what your body is telling you. If you’re feeling dissociated or having trouble knowing what you’re feeling, therapy could help as well. A therapist can provide validating space for you to lean into your own thoughts and feelings, and make up your own mind about whether a group you have joined is healthy or not.

So…is this group healthy?

If you’re concerned you may be involved in a destructive group, or you are concerned for a friend or family member, you can also check out the work of Info-Cult, a nonprofit based in Montreal and partly funded by the Canadian government which provides many free resources.


I also provide therapy and interventions for former members of, and loved ones with experience of, high-control groups. Feel free to reach out.