ICSA Today 2020, Vol. 11 No. 3, pg. 6-10


Gill Harvey

The word ostracism has evolved from the Greek ostrakismos, “a practice that originated in Athens circa 488–487 B.C. to remove those with dictatorial ambitions from the democratic state” (Zippelius, 1986, cited in Williams, 2001, p. 7). The current meaning of the word is to exclude or ignore, and it continues to serve as a social-control mechanism to enforce conformity (Wesselmann, Nairne, & Williams, 2012).

As a word, ostracism has largely been dropped from common parlance within contemporary UK society and has been replaced with alternative terms such as shunning, disfellowshipping, banishing, excommunicating, avoiding, excluding, exiling, barring, expelling, silencing, and time-out. Despite this reduced use of the term itself, ostracism as a practice is prevalent within diverse settings and in different forms—e.g., isolation of whistleblowers in the workplace, solitary confinement of individuals in institutions such as prisons, and time-out in schools, with most religions punishing “noncompliance with ecclesiastical law with some form of excommunication” (Williams, 2001, p. 8), a form of ostracism.

Cult Ostracism

The statement that “shunning and ostracism are synonymous terms” (Zieman, 2018, p. 3) is persuasive when one considers anecdotal accounts—e.g., 35 years of shunning by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to date (Zieman, 2018). There is a huge variety of different high-demand groups in existence—e.g., religious, political, self-improvement, and lifestyle (Zieman, 2017)—and cults are an important category among these groups. It is important to recognize “that the culture, practices, and beliefs of one cult differ from another” (Jenkinson, 2017, p. 344). Yet, despite this diversity, ostracism appears to be a universal way of punishing noncompliance so that one “judged to be a non-believer, suppressive, infidel or apostate” (Zieman, 2018, p. xii) is shunned, which is a literal form of “dispensing with existence” (Lifton, 1961). Hence, ostracism is one of the “unethically manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control” (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119–120, as cited in Langone, 1993, p. 4) required to ensure that the group’s system remains sealed in terms of “the marble edifice” of the Thought Reform model (Jenkinson, 2016, p. 213), and to keep the group free from “contradictory beliefs and immoral behaviours” (Zieman, 2018, p. 5). This approach in turn enables other cultic behaviors described by Lifton, such as milieu control, mystical manipulation, demand for purity, confession, sacred science, and loaded language (Lifton, 1989) to continue within the cult, reinforcing the leader’s god-like authority to issue a shunning edict that “everyone in the group is required to follow …. friends—family—even, to a degree, members of one’s own household” (Zieman, 2018, p. xiv).

Practically, ostracism is about what people refuse to do with the person viewed as “unclean” (The Amish: Shunned, 2014, 00:04:10)—e.g., avoiding eye contact, not responding, not sitting at the same table. Moreover, this is a permanent punishment unless the person is willing to reintegrate and fully adopt the thoughts, beliefs, and practices of the group again; but even then, the rejoining process “can take many months and sometimes longer” (Freestone, 2018, p. 4). It is therefore not surprising that “the prospect of being shunned is another immense barrier for those considering leaving” (Stein, 2017, p. 175) their cult or high-demand group.

In fact, mandatory shunning manipulates by using techniques that are the opposite of “love-bombing” (Singer, 2003, p. 114), a practice that commonly seduces individuals into a cult in the first place because “they are made to feel special, loved, among newfound friends, and a part of something unique” (Lalich & Tobias, 2006, p. 25). Shunning, in contrast, “affects four fundamental human needs: the need for belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence” (Gutgsell, 2017, p. 6). No wonder Zieman (2018) argues that shunning “is one of the worst things that can happen to a human” (p. xii) and refers to it as “ubiquitous” (p. 4), “a social death, an insidious form of psychological torture” (p. 4), and “a vile practice” (p. 3). Shunning has also been called the New Testament equivalent of “stoning someone to death” (The Amish: Shunned, 2014, 00:03:33). Shunning unleashes a variety of physiological, affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses” (Williams & Nida, 2011, p. 71), with identified common consequences being anxiety, panic, anger, guilt, depression, suicidal ideation, and tragically, sometimes suicide completion (Zieman, 2018).

The Effects of Ostracism on the Individual

Given the seriousness of these outcomes, it is somewhat shocking to realize that historically there has been little interest in researching the effects of ostracism on the individual. In fact, “it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that researchers began a concerted effort to understand the consequences of ostracism” (Williams & Nida, 2011, p. 71). Even now, although some useful information has been obtained from such quantitative research, the findings are limited in that “most research in this field ... has focused on the immediate and short-term impact on ostracised individuals and has been conducted under laboratory conditions” (Gutgsell, 2017, p. 6).

For example, the Cyberball paradigm experiment, which had more than 5,000 participants, found that “enduring approximately 2 to 3 minutes of ostracism ... will produce strongly negative feelings—especially those of sadness and anger” (Williams, 2009, as cited in Williams & Nida, 2011, p. 71). Another experiment, The Scarlet Letter Study, examined the effects of 5 days of ostracism in the workplace, with the detrimental impact on one human being transparently evident, as shown in the following statement: “I feel like I am a ghost on the floor that everyone hears but no one can talk to. I want to be noticed!” (Mr. Blue, 1996, as cited in Williams, 2001, p. 99).

In one way, it is astonishing that such a brief experience of ostracism by strangers, with whom there will be no ongoing contact, can detrimentally affect someone in such a way “despite the absence of verbal derogation and physical assault” (Williams & Nida, 2011, p. 71). Yet, there is very little extant research on the long-term effects, with most studies focusing on those who have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses through dissociation (an individual who has left voluntarily) or by being disfellowshipped (someone who has been excommunicated). One qualitative study however, “explored individuals’ experiences of religious ostracism in the form of case studies” (Gutgsell, 2017, p. 8), and unsurprisingly, shunning was an emergent theme, in that “participants experienced a decrease in their psychological well-being and some developed psychological disorders during or following the disfellowshipping. Several participants spoke about a lifelong lasting effect” (Gutgsell, 2017, p. 70).

This outcome is surely not surprising, given that shunning “severs existing social ties and leads to social isolation” (Gutgsell, 2017, p. 18). Further, one can begin to comprehend the enormity of the effects through the lens of the “dimensions of existence” hierarchy (Van Durzen, 2009, p. 84), which makes it immediately clear that ostracism pervades all four dimensions of existence—the physical, social, personal, and spiritual. Additionally, polyvagal theory (Porges, 2017) illustrates that someone who has exited a cult and is being ostracized is likely to oscillate between the fight/flight (hyperarousal) and freeze (hypo-arousal) zones. It is useful to appreciate that operating in these zones is a primal short-term survival mechanism; however, when doing so becomes a more permanent modus operandi, then being in these zones is likely to be detrimental to health and well-being. The cruel irony is that while being in the green zone facilitates social engagement, lack of it (a common consequence of ostracism) can result in it becoming impossible for one to be in the green zone at all. Research suggests that one experiences very different emotions when functioning within the different zones (Spring, 2019).

Survival and Recovery

“More often than not, leaving a cult environment requires an adjustment period, not only to reintegrate into ‘normal’ society, but also to put the pieces of yourself back together in a way that makes sense to you” (Tobias, 1994, as cited in Zieman, 2017, pp. 112–113). This quotation succinctly describes the challenges of leaving a cult and transitioning back into society while the cult “pseudo-personality” (Jenkinson, 2008, p. 214), which enabled survival while in the group, is “shaken to the core” by being “out in the world” (Jenkinson, 2019, p. 23). The additional cruelty of ostracism often carried out by those once thought to be nearest and dearest can “disrupt our sense of ourselves as members of an interconnected human community” (Bastian & Haslam, 2010, p. 107). As described by one former member, “in the Amish, at least you’re someone … in the English-speaking world, you’re a number” (The Amish: Shunned, 2014, 01:45:47). No wonder one person described her experience as “I was a stranger to myself” (Jenny, cited in Jenkinson, 2008, p. 204).

One can argue, therefore, that survival and recovery is much more complex than “the real self” emerging from behind “the false self” (Winnicott, 1965), where it has hidden in order to get needs met, given that the cult has been “…like a relentless machine, like a steam roller on hot tarmac with hooked spikes in it…” until “…the pseudo-personality over[lays] the pre-cult personality like tarmac on a road…” (Jenkinson, 2008, p. 215). Indeed, it is suggested that survival and recovery will involve the creation of a new postcult identity once the introjected cult pseudopersonality has been chewed and digested (Jenkinson, 2008, p. 217). But ostracism surely adds an additional level of complexity to this process, given that, in itself, ostracism can be a very challenging emotional and psychological experience.

Indeed, Zieman identifies what she calls “the predictable phases of experience when shunned” (2018, p. 12), these being “shock/disbelief, hurt/loneliness, fear/desperation, struggle, choice points A & B (key crossroads), re-engagement/re-connection, coming to terms with new reality, [and] embracing life.” (Zieman, 2018, pp. 12–14) Hauntingly, these phases resonate with well-known stages and phases of grief models—e.g., Kubler-Ross (1969) and Kubler-Ross and Kessler (2005). An alternative, but similar, model, proposed by Judith Lewis-Herman, suggests that there are three stages to the recovery process: Stage 1, safety; Stage 2, remembrance and mourning; and Stage 3, reconnecting and meaning (Herman, 2015, as cited in Zieman, 2017, pp. 15–17).

Although these models might be helpful for some, a key critique is the innate suggestion that the stages and phases are experienced in a linear and set order and are therefore time limited. However, as Kubler Ross and Kessler state about grief, “stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another” (2005, p. 18); and it is plausible that someone being ostracized may go through a similar process as a result of the enormous losses involved.

Moreover, Jenkinson developed a four-phase approach to recovery that developed from her research findings with cult survivors (Jenkinson, 2019, p. 24). She states that, in terms of recovery, the needs of first-generation adults (FGAs) and second-generation adults (SGAs) will be different: “the FGA will be regaining their sense of self; the SGA may be finding theirs for the first time” (Jenkinson, 2019, p. 24). However, Jenkinson’s model is more robust in that she clearly states that “it is important to emphasise that the phases may need revisiting and are not necessarily linear” (2019, p. 26).

Despite these critiques of her phases model, Zieman (2018) has developed a priceless resource for those being ostracized in her survival guide to shunning, which seeks to fill a gap in the extant literature. In addition to providing valuable psychoeducational information about shunning itself, Zieman also lists a plethora of techniques and survival strategies for those affected—e.g., tips on downregulating the circuit of the nervous system, including reactivation of the ventral vagus nerve (Porges, 2017). Other helpful strategies include meditation, visualization, coping techniques, and ways to manage unhelpful and racing thoughts.

The Personal Relevance of This Topic

My own story is that I am an SGA, having been raised in a small, evangelical, fundamentalist Christian group known as The Armadale Christian Service (ACS), following my mother’s decision to join the group when I was 3 years old. I left the ACS when I was 18 years old and moved away from home. The group no longer exists, yet the ramifications of it continue to this day in the evolution of enmeshed relationships (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981, as cited in Aguada, 2018, p. 4) within my family of origin, and the ostracism meted out to me in the past two and a half years. What I realize now is that my family of origin still operate as if they are in a cult, albeit no longer religious; and although I am generally much more resilient these days, my robustness has been tested like never before by the shunning I’ve been subjected to. The events around my mother’s death in February 2019, when my Father decreed that I was not to be told of her condition or informed directly of her death because he hated me, have been devastating. In fact, there are no words to describe the desolation and loneliness of not belonging in your own family. However, I know that, to be accepted back into the family fold, I would need to become an echoist again, something which I am not prepared to do because the cost is too high. Nevertheless, I also acknowledge that, for some, the cost of remaining out in the world is too much, as with the young girl in the 2014 film The Amish: Shunned, who returned to the Amish group some months after leaving despite being well supported by another former member (The Amish: Shunned, 2014). The depiction of her return to the group was incredibly moving because it demonstrated both the effectiveness of ostracism and also the intolerable nature of it.


Sadly, ostracism continues to thrive within contemporary society, especially within cultic and high-demand groups. Indeed, it is unquestionably an extremely effective manipulative tool, which keeps members obedient and devoted to the cause but also discourages followers from leaving. For those who do exit on either a voluntary or an involuntary basis, being ostracized while also seeking to adjust to the alien environment of the outside world is clearly extremely challenging. However, as long as high-demand groups continue to issue edicts that cannot be questioned, it is essential that more rigorous and robust research into the effects of long-term ostracism is carried out. This research is essential to professionals being educated about how to work ethically with former cult members who are experiencing ostracism so that the number of those “who seek help from counsellors [and] do not achieve a happy outcome” (Jenkinson, 2019, p. 23) can be significantly reduced.


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About the Author

Gill Harvey MA, BACP (Senior Accredited), ACC (Accredited) is a therapeutic counsellor/psychotherapist, supervisor, researcher, and trainer working mainly in private practice. She is also a tutor in the BA (Hons) Counselling program at Waverley Abbey College. She was raised in a small, high-demand, religious group known as The Armadale Christian Service. She is currently carrying out doctoral research on “the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing on mental health and well-being in adulthood.” Using a reflexive, collaborative, narrative methodology, she has interviewed counsellors and psychotherapists from across the Abrahamic faiths and is currently analyzing the research findings. At this time, she is a participant in the Post-Cult Counselling course being facilitated by Dr. Gillie Jenkinson and Sue Parker-Hall. She also was to speak at the ICSA Annual Conference in Montreal in July 2020, now postponed to July 2021. To contact Gill, email her at counselling@gillharvey.co.uk or gill.harvey@metanoia.ac.uk or visit her online at www.gillharvey.co.uk and Twitter: @GillHarvey20