How a cult-recovery therapist helps former NXIVM members regain their independence: ‘There’s a huge amount of fear and loss’

  • Rachel Bernstein is a licensed therapist who focuses on treating former cult members who have survived emotional, mental, and sometimes physical manipulation.
  • Bernstein currently treats 8 former members of NXIVM, a sex cult covered up as a self-improvement course.
  • Cult survivors tend to have zero trust, lack self-confidence, and have severe guilt, so she has to slowly teach them to trust their gut instincts and manage difficult emotions the cult forced them to suppress.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When therapist Rachel Bernstein invites her newest patient into her Encino, California, office, she welcomes them to search the area for cameras and recording devices that could be hidden under her desk or behind decor.

Bernstein hasn't planted any listening devices, but as a therapist who specializes in helping former cult members heal, she's familiar with the extreme distrust they have towards licensed therapists like herself.

"There is a number of groups, especially groups like Scientology, that make people terrified of going for therapy," Bernstein told Insider.

She's seen former Scientology members break out into sweats and search frantically for locks her door, which to them is a sign she might trap them there. Now, Bernstein is treating eight former members of NXIVM, a sex cult covered up as a multi-level marketing company that sold self-improvement courses.

NXIVM founder and leader Keith Raniere was arrested on seven charges including sex trafficking and forced labor in June 2019, after he employed science-backed psychological methods to manipulate members into sex, branding themselves, and sharing private information.

HBO's new docuseries "The Vow" has brought conversations about the cult back to the surface, as former members open up on-camera about the manipulation they experienced.

According to Bernstein, who also hosts a podcast about her work called "Indoctrination," treating a former cult member requires building back lost trust and instilling self-confidence and self-forgiveness that the cult stripped away from its members.

Bernstein lets patients interview her to build trust

Some former cult members come to Bernstein on their own, while others were referred to her by family or friends who staged interventions. All of them have extreme anxiety and fear rooted in trust issues.

"They've had their trust abused by the person in the position of authority, so they're going to be very nervous about you then taking advantage of them and controlling them," Bernstein said. "When they walk in the room, there's often this worry that now they're forfeiting their power and they are going to kind of take you through your paces, which I actually invite them to do."

Bernstein first invites them into her office, but doesn't close the door, and she allows them to look around for cameras, recording devices, and locks.

For the patients who are too afraid to enter at all, Bernstein will do a session on a bench outside of her office building, or meet them in the common area, if no other patients are around.

Unlike traditional therapy, where the therapist keeps their own life private and the patient does all of the talking, Bernstein tells her patients they can ask her anything about herself.

She also sits in a chair that is lower than any other furniture in her office, to visually represent that she's not an authority figure or someone patients should fear.

"I want there to be a visual of really seeing eye to eye," she said.

Re-learning to trust your gut instincts

The goal is to help patients build up the confidence, boundary-setting, and self-love they lost while in a cult.

Cult leaders train their followers to believe their gut instincts are wrong, and breed them to be co-dependent on the leader, Bernstein explained.

In NXIVM, for example, Raniere said that if someone felt scared or anxious, it meant they were being held back by their "limiting beliefs," and should ignore their gut instincts. He consistently used this method (known as the "NXIVM flip") and was eventually able to apply it in harmful ways, manipulating some followers to have sex with him, brand themselves, or be blackmailed.

To undo this co-dependency, Bernstein has to walk a fine line.

"You don't want them to become dependent on you because they're used to deferring to somebody else," she said, adding that she usually sees these patients for two years at most to prevent codependency.

A cult survivor might ask Bernstein, "What do you think about that?" or "What should I do?" Instead of offering advice right away, Bernstein asks her patient the exact same question.

"I want to validate that they actually have a mind that they can use, that they could trust. They have instincts that they can follow. And that's very important because that was robbed from them when they were in the cult," she said.

Extreme guilt, and a tendency to overshare

Guilt is a common thread in Bernstein's sessions. 

She helps her patients to process feelings of guilt for joining the cult in the first place, bringing new members into the cult, or leaving behind the cult's mission. For former NXIVM members, who joined what is billed as a "self-improvement course," that often involves feeling guilty about abandoning the goal of self-improvement.

Another common habit among former cult members is sharing too much information. That's because cult leaders often teach, "there's no limit. There's no boundary. If someone asks you a question, you answer it, and you don't have to do that in real life," Bernstein said.

Bernstein will often cut off a patient if they being to overshare.

If a new patient reveals the darkest secrets right away, Bernstein tells them she's glad they feel comfortable, and then says, "I think this is probably your knee-jerk reaction to someone in a position of authority. You don't know me yet."

When she asks a patient a personal question, she always adds that they don't have to answer if they don't want to, to take pressure off.

Accepting, and processing, negative emotions

Bernstein's patients tend to have trouble processing emotions like sadness, anger, and fear, because cult leaders often tell their followers these feelings are bad and should be ignored.

"There are a number of people who have really been traumatized, and also most people who are born and raised in cults, and have no idea how to manage their emotions because they're taught to not have any negative ones," Bernstein said. "You can be happy. You can be joyful. You can be honored. You can be in gratitude of a leader, but if you're angry, that's bad."

In their post-cult lives, survivors might blame themselves or fall into depression when they feel sad or angry, because they're not sure how long it will last. That can also lead to substance abuse.

To show that these feelings aren't inherently bad, Bernstein takes a fact-based approach, explaining how emotions are chemical responses that occur in our bodies.

"Once people learn there's not something inherently wrong with those emotions, but it's just that the cult leader couldn't handle them, that helps to undo it a bit because then they don't feel that they're evil people for having those feelings," Bernstein said.

'I'll hold onto this for you'

As a mother, Bernstein said her work often feels personal, especially when it comes to working with young folks who have been sex-trafficking victims.

"I'm taking notes because I need to take notes, but I'm thinking, 'I don't know how I'm going to re-read that,'" she said of the horrifying events her patients might share.

To take care of her own emotional wellbeing during these moments, Bernstein focuses on where her patients are now, rather than the disturbing places they've been.

"What I do is, I think, 'I'm so glad they're free and they get to tell their story,'" she said.

According to Bernstein, when survivors open up about their pasts it's a sign to her they're "getting the message that there are people in this world who can handle [their stories]. You know, give it to me, I'll hold onto this for you. You don't have to deal with this all by yourself anymore."

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