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? ♦