Live Through This

Bad Company

How to identify a toxic community—before it’s too late.

Illustration by Hattie

Belief is a powerful thing. Your beliefs are like emotional gravity; they tell you which way is up, what’s right and what’s wrong. They give you ground to stand on, then anchor you to that spot. All of that can be really wonderful—the best people I’ve known have been folks who chose to let their beliefs guide their lives, and to serve something larger than themselves.

One of the best, most stabilizing and happy-making things that a belief system can bestow upon you is a community—a bunch of people who believe in at least some of the same things you do, with whom you forge connections and act in the world according to your shared principles. It’s been shown that people who identify as religious report more satisfaction with their lives—but, according to those who study these things, it’s probably not faith itself that makes people happy; it’s the sense of community and friendship that they get from being part of a congregation.

But, as with all things, there’s another side of this story. That is the side that I’m here to tell you about right now.

I was a very religious little kid. Catholic, to be precise. I wanted my faith to be a big part of my life, so I joined my church’s youth group. At first, I really loved it—there were lots of kids in the group, from grade-schoolers like me to teenagers, and we met at least once a week, so I got to make new friends. The group leaders—all adults—were really nice. Some of them took me on solo trips to museums, and talked with me about my ambition to become a nun when I grew up. (My original intention was to be a priest or a saint, but when I learned those were next to impossible for a girl like me, I settled on nun.) I joined the group’s choir, and we got to sing at nursing homes on Christmas (I also harbored a secret goal to be an amazing singer). And all I had to do to enjoy these privileges was to persuade my other friends to join the group, and agree not to bring up certain things in meetings (animal rights, for some reason, were something I would get yelled at for talking about; God made the world, and wanted us to have dominion over it, was the apparent reason), and maybe just talk to my parents about how I would be doing better academically if I enrolled in the private home school run by the group, and, and, and…

That youth group, which started out giving me so many things I wanted and needed (friendship, belonging, praise, affirmation), made increasingly large and unreasonable demands on me and my family, and it just started to feel…weird. But I kept going, until one day the church suspended our meetings because, my mom told me later, the woman who led the group had some pretty outdated beliefs about raising young Catholics to be especially “pure”—beliefs that were too extreme for the church’s comfort. Like, I remember that she told us that non-Catholics were inherently “bad” people, that anything less than devoting our entire lives to the church was not enough, and that her version of Catholicism was infallible and therefore we couldn’t question any of her teachings. When the church itself asked her to tone down the rhetoric, she refused. But by then my mom had started feeling creeped out by the whole deal, and she pulled me out.

While all of this qualified as unsettling, it wasn’t traumatic for me—I wasn’t being asked to do anything unsafe or unbearable, and since I stopped going while the group was in limbo, I didn’t have to make a dramatic exit speech or endure endless questions from the other kids about why I was abandoning them. But when I look back now, I feel like I dodged a bullet. Some of the things my youth group was doing—silencing dissent, requiring us to recruit new members, asking us and our families to make unreasonable changes in our lives, propagating an extreme ideology that wasn’t open to debate, and refusing to be accountable to any outside authority—were eerily reminiscent of the practices of cults.

Now, this group wasn’t exactly a cult—they didn’t, for example, ask us for money or order us to cut off all ties with our family and outside friends, two of the items on this handy are-you-in-a-cult checklist—but a group doesn’t have to be a full-on leave-your-family-give-us-all-your-money-and-live-with-us-in-a-compound-off-the-grid brainwash situation to suck in some similar ways. Any kind of seemingly innocent cohort—a religious group, a political/activist group, a self-help or self-improvement program, a business, a PTA, even a social body like a sorority or fraternity—can treat its members in ways that would make a true cult leader proud. Let’s call these “toxic communities.”

It can be hard to tell at first if you’re in one of these—such groups don’t tend to lead with the bad stuff. No organization is going to welcome you in by saying, “Oh, and by the way, we’re going to slowly drain your checking account, and when, three months from now, you ask us where the money’s going, we’re going to shame you in front of the whole gang.” I think it’s especially hard to detect if a religious association, like my youth group, or any bunch of people who have gathered together around a shared belief, is toxic, because belief in something larger than yourself is such a powerful force that it’s easy, when you’re in its thrall, to ignore signs of danger or even intense emotional pain for the sake of being around other people who seem to share your values.

A toxic community can steal your energy, resources, friends, confidence, and even your sense of your own individual identity. It’ll wear away your healthy boundaries, and the longer you’re in it, the harder it will be for you to even see that there’s anything wrong. So, with any group, the time to ask questions is at the beginning—when you’re a new member, or, even better, when you’re just thinking about joining up. Here are some good ones to start with:

1. Is the answer always “Because I said so”?

The first thing to ask yourself is: Who gets to do the talking? In any group, of course, there are always going to be some people whose words carry more weight, whether it’s because they’re naturally great talkers, or because they have more experience, or because they’ve been appointed to a position of authority in the organization (or likely some combination of those factors). And that’s fine! But there’s a difference between leadership and being automatically right about literally everything. Or between having a lot of ideas, and feeling entitled to drown out the ideas of everybody else.

Rookie’s own Suzy X. has a lot of experience in political organizing and activism, so I talked to her about toxicity in those kinds of groups. When I asked her to name some red flags, this was the very first one on her list. “There’s a problem when one person is so authoritative that people become too intimidated to question anything they say,” she said. “Some [group members] say [they stay silent] because they don’t want to cause any rifts, others say they’re afraid of getting yelled at (or worse). This is done out of fear more than respect.”

At first, having a charismatic and unquestionable leader can feel great—it seems like you don’t have to worry about anything, including making decisions, because someone’s taking care of all of it for you—but it can lead to catastrophe. So, look around this group you’re considering. Is one person doing all the talking? Does no one question that person—or, if they do, are they shot down immediately by the dominating person or (and this happens a lot) everyone but that person? If you feel like you can’t question the authority of an individual or a small group of individuals, get out.


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  • artobsessed December 10th, 2012 11:13 PM

    seriously, girl, you rock.

  • darksideoftherainbow December 10th, 2012 11:26 PM

    i really like this. i am Catholic. i’m 25 years old and am responsible for deciding this. i was raised Catholic and completed my sacraments to confirmation, but i myself choose to be Catholic. i think it’s extremely important to understand that because you believe in your religion, it doesn’t mean that you need to do everything people ask of you. what i mean is, belief in one thing and organized religion can be another. i truly believe that organized religion can be beautiful and welcoming, but we need to remember that everything is run by real people. people are not infallible. they can be wrong and they can be corrupt. they do, after all, have freewill. thank you so much for this. not all religion can be toxic, but some of it, even a lot of it, can. it’s important to not be toyed with bc religion can mean so much in a person’s life. THANK YOU.

  • elllzbellz December 10th, 2012 11:34 PM

    As a member of a Panhellenic sorority that does NOT haze, I’m pretty upset that you make it sound like hazing occurs only in greek life. Hazing in fact occurs in many sports teams, as well as other clubs and groups.
    By calling out sororities and fraternities specifically for hazing, you are perpetuating the sterotype we work so hard to break. While there is some sororities and fraternities that still do haze, please don’t lump us all together.
    Other then that, I throughly enjoyed this article!

    • Anaheed December 10th, 2012 11:42 PM

      Fraternity/sorority hazing was intended to be just one example that we thought would be familiar to most of our readers. If Sady listed every example of every phenomenon she mentions in this piece, it would be 1000 pages long and very boring! We certainly did not intend to imply that the ONLY organizations that have such rituals are Greek ones.

    • all-art-is-quite-useless December 12th, 2012 1:23 PM

      this might be a really stupid question, but what is hazing?

      • Anaheed December 12th, 2012 1:30 PM

        It’s a ritual or set of rituals for initiating someone into a group & usually involves some kind of humiliation or harassment or physical pain/danger.

  • Ludo December 11th, 2012 12:28 AM

    The illustration for this is so cool! I think Hattie is my favourite Rookie artist. Does she have a website where I can view more of her work?

  • marineo December 11th, 2012 1:25 AM

    I also wanted to be a nun when I was little! I still kind of do. Not even for the religious part, but just living separate from the world with people who love and care for one another…
    but yeah, at 3rd grade CCD class when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I definitely said the pope. It was met with nervous laughter on the part of our leaders…

    • Abby December 11th, 2012 9:28 AM

      LOLZ… even though this doesn’t have to do with religion I told my mom a LOT when I was 5 that I wanted to be a daddy when I grew up… she says it was a bit of a scare haha.

  • Abby December 11th, 2012 9:28 AM


  • smallsauropod December 11th, 2012 12:13 PM

    This is great, and very timely for me! But I’m wondering if there are any thoughts out there for situations that aren’t so cut and dry, and how to deal with them once you’ve left?

    For example. Let’s say a young woman was a member of a local UU church for about 2 years, and it MOSTLY didn’t do these things, but the guilt tripping and the time and energy zapping definitely, being asked to recruit new members, wearing down of healthy boundaries, all of that stuff definitely happened, until it became too much. How would this totally hypothetical young woman deal with having left that community, but still missing INDIVIDUALS within that community. It would be particularly difficult if that community existed in the neighborhood she still lives and works in and OH MY GOSH THIS IS TOTALLY JUST AN EXAMPLE GUYS.

    But seriously, it’s often not as simple as “if it feels bad, leave!” is it? It would be great to see ROOKIE tackle how to leave things in a healthy way, recognizing of course that for the most abusive situations, that probably isn’t an option.

  • looking for alaska December 11th, 2012 12:53 PM

    hey! I submitted an article about Sufism and Islam last week but never heard back. Do you guys respond to all submissions or only the ones that you decide to put up?

    • Anaheed December 11th, 2012 1:19 PM

      We respond to all of them, it just takes a while because I am only one person and there are 50-100 submissions per day.

      What day did you send your submission?

      • looking for alaska December 11th, 2012 5:03 PM

        I sent it on 4th December (last Tuesday)

  • Sophii December 11th, 2012 1:13 PM

    This is such a good article. My best friend made new friends last year. Although we were best friends we didn’t have any lessons together so I didn’t mind her making new friends. We always kind of kept our other friendships somewhat separate. But then she got in with this group that starting bullying a girl who used to be a member of the group. The group even has a name and everyone refers to them as that. They go to Starbucks and then go out getting drunk EVERY Friday. I’m fifteen by the way.They go to lots of concerts and do fun stuff but they have even gone to extremes of stealing money from their parents in order to not be left out. They seem somewhat impenetrable and because of this group I lost my best friend because her new friends are so time consuming. She also used to go running with me and now she’s given that up. She got asked to run in a couple of races next year and said no. It’s probably because she smokes all the time now so her lungs wouldn’t be able to cope and also perhaps it isn’t deemed as cool. Perhaps I’m not deemed as cool. They’re all super trashy though so I don’t care; I just miss my best friend.

    I definitely think you should always consider how much you enjoy something, whether it makes you happy and whether it makes your life better. If it doesn’t do any of them then what’s the point? I think everyone should have the right to voice their beliefs either religious, political or something different x

  • Lonecia December 11th, 2012 2:26 PM

    I am now 53. I survived my growing up years and many years after that by trusting my gut.

    It is so much easier to say sorry, later, than to remain in a potentially toxic situation.

    If you trust your gut instincts, then over time, it runs in the background and you know you don’t have to worry so much because you are taking care of yourself. I trust me to look out for me, therefore, my own self confidence in general is more solid.

  • julalondon December 11th, 2012 3:11 PM

    Wow this was a great article! I really enjoyed reading it, because it was not only IF THEY DO THIS AND THAT LEAVE, but written in a very good way.. I know those problem in religious youth groups myself, though i havn’t experienced any sort of radical stuff. Anyway, i just wanted to say how great this article is!=) Thank you!

  • Kathryn December 11th, 2012 3:41 PM

    really great article, and awesome illustration by hattie!

  • Kathryn December 11th, 2012 4:15 PM

    I’m getting confirmed Catholic right now (even though I don’t consider myself to be Catholic), and I feel like part of the reason I hate it so much is how many of the things on that cult checklist apply (on a smaller scale, I mean. I know it’s not an actual cult.) — to my specific church, anyway. I’m not talking about Catholicism in general. But a lot of the things on the list are familiar and part of the reasons why I’m not happy in my church. We’re constantly talking about evangelization, the general “holier than thou” atitude is usually present, and one time last year we chanted this one prayer (I don’t remember what it was) for at least fifteen straight minutes. It just seems cult-y and stifling to me, even though I know that it’s not an actual cult.

    Another time last year we broke into groups and each group discussed the church’s views on a different topic and then presented what we learned to the other groups. The topics were gay marriage, contraceptives, the death penalty, and other things like that. In my group, one of the younger leaders who had a really blatant “holier than thou” attitude totally shot me down for politely bringing up a point that contradicted hers. (It was supposed to be a discussion, after all.)

    I think what I’m trying to say is that religion can be a really strong bond and source of empowerment, but it can also be really stifling and something that can be a source of anxiety and make you feel bitter/bad about yourself or guilty. Sorry this is so rambly, I’m in study hall and the bell’s about to ring, haha.

  • numoon_vintage December 11th, 2012 8:29 PM

    Ha, this is funny after watching martha macy may marlene for the second time last night.

    It’s weird when groups have a tendency to be borderline cult-like, especially corporations. Like if you read about the CEO of abercrombie and fitch, who lives a cultish lifestyle based off his brand. It’s so creepy!
    I can’t stand the cultish behaviorl of corporations, so I avoid getting jobs at places like Target and Chili’s.

  • bluemeanie96 December 12th, 2012 9:02 AM

    Every single time the word “Cult” is mentioned I think of that episode of Strangers With Candy. It’s a serious subject but I can’t stop giggling.