What Growing Up In A Cult Taught Me About Boundaries

"Coercive control or groupthink meant that those of us growing up in the Children of God cult didn’t get a chance to reflect on why boundaries were important, much less have the agency to practice setting healthy ones."
Petra in the Children of God cult in the 1980s
Petra Velzeboer
Petra in the Children of God cult in the 1980s

You might think that growing up in a cult had no boundaries – but it had plenty.

They were just set for you as a matter of course – rules, structures and expectations were outlined from the moment of birth – right through from how often to take breaks, what to read, what your purpose was and what was ok to say or not say.

Coercive control or groupthink meant that those of us growing up in the Children of God cult didn’t get a chance to reflect on why boundaries were important, much less have the agency to practice setting healthy ones.

In the situation this sometimes felt like order and consistency, like I was being taken care of and the ‘why’ was clear – for the sake of the greater good, question nothing and you’ll stay safe etc.

However, over time and when adapting into the adult world outside of the cult, there was no structure for understanding what I needed. I didn’t know how to set a healthy boundary so instead, I shape-shifted to fit into what anyone else needed, made sure everyone else was ok and assumed that I simply didn’t have needs.

Over time what I now know as people-pleasing behaviour had a hugely negative affect on me. For me, I spiralled into alcohol addiction as a way of releasing the pressure on things I could not say, I descended into depression, anxiety and walked the tightrope of burnout for years – the impact of decades of hypervigilance and not fully breathing.

In my work as a psychotherapist and mental health consultant, I see many clues in the corporate world as to why many people are more burnt out, depressed or anxious than ever.

Groupthink plays a huge part in how people make decisions or sacrifice what their own body and mind needs, in favour of keeping the peace or hitting that next deadline. In a post pandemic world where we’ve been in a feeling of survival for so long, many people are feeling the delayed impact of being there for others or playing by the rules, experiencing burnout, overwhelm, a feeling of hopelessness and a variety of mental health issues.

Petra with her daughter.
Petra Velzeboer
Petra with her daughter.

When I do keynotes, I sometimes ask the audience who knows how to set a healthy boundary – and maybe two people out of 300 will raise their hand. So although many of us know the word boundary, we don’t actually understand how our conditioning, cultural expectations, triggers, and environment impact whether we’ve learned the skill of boundary setting – because it is really a skill that can be developed over time.

Boundaries are important in relationships, home, and work. Without boundaries you can lose sleep, exercise and the foundation elements that boost your wellbeing and enable you to be creative and focus.

Just like in the cult, with a rise in remote work, no longer can we rely simply on the institution to set our boundaries and structure our day, instead we are now responsible to reflect and understand how we work best and the elements that will keep us both physically and mentally healthy.

Rather than wait until crisis or coercion it’s down to each of us to think for ourselves, assess our lives and make the adjustments that enable us to thrive.

Within this, we’re seeing a rise of people leaving work or completely adapting their lives which for some is a response to burnout or waiting too long and for others, a proactive way to think for themselves and decide what kind of life they want – finally taking that brave step.

For years, I did whatever anyone else needed me to do, trying to be the perfect girlfriend, parent and employee, wearing a mask to act as if everything was ok, telling no one of the secret struggles inside. Keeping everything in meant I felt weird, different and like the only person who was struggling and eventually I began hitting rock bottom moments, escaping through addiction, and putting myself and my young kids in danger.

I had to learn about myself, what I needed and wanted and crucially, how to put boundaries in place in order to give myself any chance of building up a life from scratch and in a way, making up for lost time.

First, I had to quit drinking. I went to recovery groups and simply observed people being honest. This was radical to me! To simply see people share what their thoughts and feelings were, showing their mess and people accepting them and even increasing connection and wellbeing was a surprise to me. And so I had to try, slowly to simply be honest.

Petra at her graduation.
Petra Velzeboer
Petra at her graduation.

Taking off the mask is not an overnight thing, it’s a daily practice of bravery that slowly builds into a life where you can fully be yourself. It’s being the first one to be honest with a friend, questioning the way things have always been done and learning about who you are and what you want.

So how do you set a healthy boundary? Here’s a few things to practice and experiment with and see what works for you.

Follow the resentment

You know that icky-stressed feeling you get when you roll your eyes internally and think why oh why am I doing this thing? This is a clue that perhaps a boundary has been walked over.

Ask yourself, what boundary do I need?

is it emotional, physical, practical? What would help you invest in yourself and feel good about what you do each day.


Once you’ve decided what it is, the crucial part of ensuring that boundary is respected is communicating it to the people who it impacts. So often people miss this step and then wonder why they’ve been pulled back into the habit loop of what-they’ve-always-done.

Finally, setting boundaries that are just right for you is deeply personal and takes practice. You mostly don’t even need to defend or explain your reasons, it simply is. If you want to build a radically different life than the one handed to you when you were young or the one you find yourself in now, it’s never too late!

If you want a different outcome, you simply (but not easily) need to exhibit different behaviours and just like me - the kid who had no education, thought the world was going to end and drank to feel – you can create a radically different life for yourself and positively impact those around you.

Petra Velzeboer is first and foremost a psychotherapist and mental health expert. However, it is her unique personal story of growing up in a cult that offers a new lens on the mental health narrative. Petra was born into the notorious Children of God cult (the same one that River and Joaquin Phoenix grew up in). She grew up thinking the world was going to end, she was prevented from going to school and experienced severe trauma that left her with PTSD.

She is the CEO of mental health consultancy PVL and author of new book Begin With You, published 3 May 2023.