Live Through This

Bad Company

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

2. Does the door open from both sides?

First: how easy is it to join? Some groups—like sororities, religious affiliations, the military, even some friend groups—require new or potential members to go through initiation rituals. Most of these are harmless—yes, it’s painful to watch your older relatives dancing at your bat mitzvah, but that hardly qualifies as trauma—but when these rites get dangerous (like some fraternity and sorority hazing traditions) or humiliating, their purpose is to weed out anyone who isn’t super into doing anything it takes, however painful, to “prove” themselves “worthy” of the group’s approval. This is not the kind of precedent you want to set when you join anything.

Once you’ve proven your unquestioning loyalty, a toxic community will often bombard you with what feels a lot like love—you’ll get a lot of attention, congratulations on passing their test(s), and a whole new group of friends. At this point you may be like, “Shut up, Sady—this feels really nice!” I know it does! But it’s also a good way to hook you in even deeper, and keep you in control. Now that the people in this group have made you feel so welcome and so special—especially if you’ve come to them at a particularly vulnerable time in your life, as is often the case—can you imagine how painful it would be to lose them? Why, you’d do anything to avoid being rejected by them… Yeah. Again, not a good start to a relationship.

Next question: how easy is it to leave? A group, by definition, has a border between who’s in and who’s out. It’s natural for its members to be at least somewhat selective about whom they admit. And it’s also normal for members of a group to feel sad and disappointed when someone decides to leave. What isn’t healthy is when a group is totally hostile to outsiders, including anyone who voluntarily quits or cuts back on their involvement. If you regularly hear members of this group talk shit about people who used to be in it, something weird is going on.

Another red flag is if your friendships with people outside of the group are called into question. Let’s say you’re in an activist group that calls itself “feminist.” You’re a feminist! You want to meet other feminists! So you join. Meanwhile, one of your best friends is a pro-lifer who doesn’t call herself a feminist at all, but that’s OK with both of you, because you love and respect each other. How do the other members of the group react? Do they accept your friendship with this person? Or do they imply (or say outright) that you’re a “bad feminist” for not deleting her from your life? If it’s the latter, these folks are bad news. Any group that tries to “protect” you from opposing ideas is a group that can’t defend its own.

Toxic communities depend, to some degree, on isolation—isolating themselves from anyone who disagrees with them, and isolating you from your old friends and community. And then suddenly, this group comprises the only friends you have left—and you’ll do anything not to lose them. (Sensing a pattern here?)

Really exclusive social cliques can work this way too—if these “friends” urge you to stop talking to your childhood pal because he isn’t “cool enough” for them, they’re toxic, too.

3. What is the price of being there?

It’s reasonable to be asked to contribute your time and/or your work to a project. It takes money to keep most organizations running, so a lot of them collect dues from members, or charge fees for special trips or classes. But if you’re being asked to give (time, money, whatever) until it hurts, there’s a problem.

Does your group ask you to lie to other people in your life? When they ask for time, do they ask for all of your time? When they ask for money, do they ask for all of your money? I hate to even ask this, but: do they try to have a say as to whom you date or have sex with? This is no longer doing what you can for a cause you believe in; this is abuse.

Toxic communities, including shady business “opportunities,” activist organizations, and actual full-throttle cults, are really good at making you feel guilty. If you feel like you can’t set boundaries on your time or the amount of suffering, financial or otherwise, you’re willing to sacrifice without being accused “not caring enough” about the group’s cause/belief/goal, don’t go on that guilt trip. If you’re uncomfortable with what’s being asked of you, get away from the people doing the asking.

4. What is the price of being you?

Even in the most homogenous kind of community, each person has something that makes them different from everyone else. This is a beautiful thing that makes the world less boring and thus should be celebrated. But some groups try instead to sand down people’s interestingly weird edges and create the illusion of a smooth, uniform surface—and they’ll punish anyone who dares to create so much as a ripple.

Are you comfortable asserting your differences in the group you’ve chosen? Now that you’ve come out as a queer girl, does the church you’ve grown up in welcome you—and your girlfriend? Do the other members of your environmental action committee constantly criticize you for holding on to the high-paying corporate job that you love? Do the women in your mostly-white feminist activist group get impatient when you, a woman of color, talk about race? Are you in any way made to feel marginalized? Get out of there. Go find a community that will support and value who you are, and what you think, as is.

5. Is your life getting better?

This question comes from the most reliable source in the world: my mother. As long as I have known her, she has been passionately involved in her religious congregation. She’s always been involved in prayer groups, home churches, and community service, and she’s my model for how to live a life connected to your deepest beliefs. She’s also cut some faith-based groups from her life, not because she didn’t share their faith, but because her life simply wasn’t getting better through her involvement with them. Sometimes, your group can be “right” politically, or philosophically, or even organizationally, but simply not right for you.

If you walk into a room with the people who supposedly share your faith, convictions, and/or worldview, you should have a good gut feeling. You shouldn’t feel scared, intimidated, judged, hurt, or like you just can’t put your finger on it, but something seems…off. You should never have to spend more time processing your feelings about a group, or obsessing about how to fit into it, than you do focusing on the faith or cause that led you to join the group in the first place. A healthy community will make you feel supported, connected, and energized. The best sign that you’re in one of these: your life will be getting better. After all: isn’t that why you’re there? ♦


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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.