Exit Counseling

A Paper On Theory

Theravive Counseling
Psychology Research & Review

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Deprogramming / Exit Counseling

This article discusses Deprogramming, which is similar to, though not entirely the same as "Exit Counseling". Read more about the difference here.

For people that have been allegedly brainwashed a process that reverses it is referred to as deprogramming.  This process is very controversial and considered by many to be a very risky process.  It primarily begins with the person being deprogrammed participating in an involuntary manner.  It has often been referred to as an intervention.  When people believe that a person has been brainwashed by a certain political, social, religious, or economic group it is believed that they need to be deprogrammed in order to get them to once again become productive members of society.  Professionals who are considered to be anti-cult or counter-cult typically will engage in voluntary deprogramming.  This is then referred to as exit counseling - in other words, a mean to "bring back" an individual from a detrimental situation that he or she cannot leave willingly, or simply to regain control of one's life and actions. 

Goals of Deprogramming

The main goal of deprogramming is to get the person who has been brainwashed to begin thinking on their own and to be able to evaluate their situation.   Many of the methods used include the education of the person in question to help them recognize what has happened to their experience.  They put the person in a position to encourage them to ask questions so they can think in an independent manner.

When is Deprogramming Used?

The practice of deprogramming was widely used in the early 1970’s.  Over the years the methods used became unfavorable.  This happened because it is very expensive and because it generally entails the act of kidnapping and then imprisoning the person who is going to be deprogrammed.  Over the years this type of treatment has ended up in lawsuits and criminal charges being filed.  Today, many families turn to exit counselors for help.  Exit counseling focuses on the use of techniques that are primarily psychological in method.  The hope is that the brainwashed person will want to volunteer for counseling and help.  The family is trained in the most effect ways to deal with the person in question so that they can gain their trust and to inspire them to communicate with them effectively.  Generally brainwashed persons believe that their family is nothing but mere outsiders.  Family members are encouraged to remain calm, loving, and to not judge or be harsh.

How Deprogramming Works

Deprogrammers today are known as Exit Counselors.  Normally they are prior members of a certain type of cult.  They understand what mind control is all about.  They are also familiar with the dynamics and the interworking of the cult membership.  Exit counselors will also know about the cult’s history and what their leaders are about.  With this knowledge at hand they can reach the person in question they are able to break through the typical closed off thinking which is critical in helping the person break free of the cult.  The primary advantage of this type of exit counseling is that those who participate are able to learn how to adapt to normal moral practices and to see the differences in the belief structures of the cult.  They are able to learn about any misrepresentations and things that were kept hidden from them.  This process helps the person to understand the true nature of the path they were following.  With exit counseling they can arm the person who was brainwashed with informative resources that can help them to break free.  Afterwards they will need plenty of support and education to acclimate back to normal life.

Criticisms of Deprogramming

Many methods that have been involved in deprogramming are considered to be harsh and a violation of the civil rights of the person who was thought to be brainwashed.  These methods have been considered by many to be more detrimental to the person receiving the deprogramming and it can cause them to need a great deal more counseling than if other strategies were used. 

With the risk of legalities increasing, many deprogrammers have had to revisit many ethical issues and use new means of working with brainwashed individuals such as methods that are non-coercive.  Today, deprogramming approaches are more respectful and offer treatment that is highly more educational in nature.  The goal is to offer counseling that is not traumatic for the individual going through it.  Even though families may be desperate to get their loved one out of a situation that they consider to be harmful, if not handled properly, deprogramming could be even more damaging.


Layton, Julia (2012). How Cults Work.Encyclopedia of religion , Volume 4 , Lindsay Jones , Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pages 2291-2293.

Understanding Cults and New Age Religions, by Irving Hexham, Karla Poewe, and J. I. Packer

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