Growing up in a cult taught me it was sinful to spend money on myself, and that took me over a decade to unlearn

Business Insider/March 22, 2022

By Lisa Kohn

When you Google, "sex is easier to talk about than money," you get pages and pages of articles to read. When you Google, "money is easier to talk about than sex," you also get pages and pages of articles to read … only they're the same articles, about how sex is easier to talk about than money.

People don't like talking about money. As someone who grew up in a cult, I don't like talking or thinking about either.

My relationship with money was so warped that I couldn't even spend roughly $20 on a pair of red Converse High Tops when I was in my early 30s, even though this was years after I'd left the cult, I was financially solvent, and I could easily afford the shoes I desperately wanted.

I grew up in the Unification Church — also known as the Moonies. My mom joined the Moonies in 1974, when I was 10.

As I like to say when I describe my childhood, the best seats I ever had at Madison Square Garden were at my mother's wedding. Along with 2,074 other couples, my mom got married on July 1, 1982 in Madison Square Garden to a man she barely knew; a man the "Messiah" picked for her, but a man she barely knew nonetheless.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon was my Messiah. My True Father.

When you are "lucky" enough to know the Messiah is on Earth, and to be blessed with the opportunity to live your life for God, you learn some pretty messed up things. When you're in a cult, most of these things are taught to you intentionally, to control your ability to think for yourself and to live on your own, and to keep you in the cult.

Including some pretty messed up things about money.

Back then, I knew all of this: I knew Moon was the Messiah, and I knew that he — and his family, the True Family — were holy and worship-able beyond belief. I was best friends with one of his children, so I was allowed to visit the opulent estate where he and his family lived.

I knew the True Family deserved that grandeur, and Church members deserved to live pretty much in squalor, having given all of their money and possessions to the Church when they joined and started working full-time for the Church. For free.

Church members were privileged to have this opportunity to suffer for God and mankind. To pay for the sins of their ancestors. Members' suffering and sacrifices were a blessing, because it was a chance to soothe God's suffering and ease the pain God had felt for over 6,000 years.

I knew that money was only for God's work and for lavishing upon True Family. Anything else was Satan. I knew that it was wrong — sinful, even — for me to want or have anything nice. Actually, to want or have anything at all.

Hence my obsessive, decade-long desire for a pair of red High Tops and my inability to buy them for myself.

It wasn't just the High Tops. I couldn't spend money on myself at all. I had been taught so much and so well that wanting and having was sinful and selfish, and I was so wrecked by leaving the cult and "breaking God's heart" (something else we were taught), that I was wracked with guilt whenever I wanted anything or took care of myself — especially if I ever bought anything for myself.

Scraping by and having very little would always be my way to win back God's favor, since I had made the selfish, sinful decision to leave the cult and the Messiah.

Even after I finally knew that my decision to leave the cult was a powerful act, not a sinful one, I could still be chained by the lies about money that were put in my brain in order to control me.

I founded my leadership consulting and executive coaching firm in 1995, and it took me a very long time to own my business and not choke on shame when we charged — and even more so, when we charged well — for our services.

My memoir was published in 2018, and my first and strongest impulse was to only do good with it and spread a message of hope and self-love, rather than to want the book to sell, and sell well, and to — God forbid — make money off of it. I can still feel guilty asking people to pay for their copies of the book. I somehow think I'm supposed to only give it away.

I know it's easy to wonder how I ever could have believed all of this. How I could have let it keep me chained and controlled. That's the thing about mind control:  You don't really have a choice about believing what you're told and taught, and you certainly don't have a choice — or much of a choice — about being chained and controlled. The truth is that we are all susceptible to extreme beliefs.

As humans, we crave certainty, purpose, and community, and cults offers you absolute certainty, consummate purpose, and a community beyond belief … as long as you don't leave. It is outrageously intoxicating. The best drug ever.

In many ways, believing these beliefs feels like a small price to pay for the glory of knowing "Truth." Plus, you never actually know you're paying this price because, again, these "Truths" are carved into your brain.

That's why leaving a cult is near impossible, as is changing the beliefs and thought patterns that held you there. Near impossible, but not impossible.

I am happy to say that my relationship with money has shifted — I have learned to buy myself things and to enjoy the abundance I have. I have red High Tops, and I also have glorious Converse All Stars in three different colors.

I am comfortable not only with charging for my company's services, but with pushing my business partner to raise our fees and charge more. I will gift my memoir to other Second Gens (those of us born and/or raised in a cult) or therapists who work with trauma and cult survivors, but I will also happily promote it and sell it. The New York Times bestseller list is still my goal.

It's taken a long time and a lot of work (and therapy) to get to this healthier relationship with money. Now I just need to heal a bit around sex, too. 

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