Narcissism in Cults
A cult is a system of worship and devotion - often centered around religious beliefs but not always - that usually involves one central figure or thing. For example, a cult can spring up around a certain artifact or belief system. We often hear that movies have a cult following. That means they have a small but extremely devoted fan base. Cults can spring up around people too, such as notorious narcissist and charismatic cult leader Jim Jones. Though Jim Jones professed to preach the word of Christ, the object of the group's devotion was Jim himself. Charles Manson - another noted and obvious narcissist - did not preach the word of Christ or any religious doctrine, but he styled himself as a persecuted Christ-like figure in many ways and because he was quite a bit older than the kids that ended up with him, they accepted his word as gospel.
In many ways, the dynamics of abuse and isolation that take place in narcissistic relationships are the same in a cult setting. They just involve more people. For example, a narcissistic abuser lovebombs the victim in the beginning. They offer unconditional acceptance, support, promises of a wonderful future, a place to belong, something to be part of and believe in, they project an idealized image of the victim and of themselves... they are everything the vulnerable victim is looking for and they say everything the victim wants to hear. Cult leaders do the exact same thing. They foster loyalty, togetherness and bonding, the same way abusers do. They turn the victim away from others and toward themselves by subtly - and sometimes not so subtly - suggesting that others are not as special, talented, are not chosen, don't understand, are abusive, neglectful, uncaring, limited, limiting... just like narcissistic abusers do. Cult leaders create a special status narrative and invite the victim to be special, too. Or they create a persecution narrative and offer the victim safety from the persecution. They offer salvation. They offer freedom. They offer protection. They offer safety. Validation. A home. A family. A community. This is exactly what vulnerable people are looking for.
Cult leaders gaslight their followers. They lie to them. They extort them. They project onto them. They devalue them. They triangulate. They future fake. They create trauma bonds. They engage in every single abusive and manipulative tactic that a narcissistic family member, friend or spouse engages in. The biggest or most meaningful difference is probably that in a relationship, the victim is usually alone in their belief that the relationship and/or the abuser is misunderstood or special. In a cult, there are multiple victims all reinforcing the cognitive dissonance, denial and gaslighting to each other. It becomes a much more immersive environment - especially if the cult has become separated from mainstream society, as many do due to the persecuted or otherwise special status the leader has created for the group. Individual identity is destabilized and the group identity systematically replaces it, often with an "us vs. them" narrative involving persecution or danger to the group, its status or its leader from outsiders. The individual followers' identities become linked with each other and with the leader. Members of the group become victims-turned-flying-monkeys, defending the cause or system and its leader - and therefore themselves - from all attacks both real and imagined.
You can see an excellent example of this dynamic in the behavior of the Manson Family when Charles Manson was on trial. It isn't just a show of solidarity and support for their beloved Charlie. It is what happens when someone's identity has merged so completely with another person that they are unwilling (or possibly unable) to think and act for themselves. Most situations are not as extreme as the Manson Family; Manson's mind control techniques were so refined and effective that some have even speculated he was actually a government agent of some kind, and there were different things going on with that group of people that are not always present in other cult situations (such as the young age of the group members, daily hallucinogenic drug use, ego/identity subversion exercises and other things that affected the overall stability and suggestibility of the group psychologically). However, their behavior when he was on trial is still a very good demonstration of the dynamic we are talking about here.
In this kind of group environment, rebellion against the group and its leader is effectively snuffed out. Those who are not "true believers" are often ostracized, triangulated against or otherwise punished for daring to question the teachings or motives of the narcissistic leader. They may even be punished by willing members of the group, either because they are considered traitors or because the group believes it is for their own good and the good of the group. If rebels can be brought back into the fold, they will be. If not, they are often labeled a dangerous enemy and smeared, harassed, attacked or exiled using the same tactics that a narcissistic spouse or family member might use in the same situation.
It all happens for the same reason. Victims of narcissistic abuse often defend their abuser because they care about and believe in this person. They have invested a large amount of time, energy and even their own identity into this person. It has become very personal. It's now about them, not just the other person or people. This is the same thing that happens to those who have been abused in a cult situation.
Mark Twain once said, "It is easier to fool people than it is to convince people they've been fooled,"and that's true. Once a person has been fooled, they become invested in the person or the system or the situation. Ego gets involved. Identity gets involved. Feelings get involved. Belief gets involved. Then denial gets involved. It's not just about realizing they've been fooled or that they believed something that wasn't true. It's about all of the things attached to that: what does this mean about the person that fooled me? What does it mean about me? What about all the things about me and my life that are now attached to this? What about all of the basic things that I thought were true? Things can be too big to just accept, because of what it means about everything else in this person's life and all of the things they believe. It can require an enormous shift in how they see everything and that's just too much for many people.
This is one reason that narcissistic abuse on any level is often so devastating. It's not just physical damage from violence and stress. It's not just psychological damage from repeated trauma, manipulation and gaslighting. It's not just emotional damage from being devalued, dismissed, degraded and deliberately attacked. Narcissistic abuse causes spiritual wounds as well. Faith is not just about God or religion. We have faith in many things. Narcissistic abuse shakes the core, basic faith in the fundamental things we believe as human beings: that people are basically good, that love is all you need, that communication solves all problems, that reason and logic work as a universal language, that we matter, that we can be and are loved... Narcissistic abuse undermines all of these things and many more, often leaving people with the feeling that everything they believed or used to guide themselves is a lie.
It can affect many institutions that people believe in, too. In cults, it often attacks religious faith. If the abuser has a position of implied authority, such as a doctor or a therapist or a police officer or a priest - or if people in these institutions somehow reinforce or condone the abuse - it can severely shake someone's faith in these institutions that we are conditioned to trust and believe in. People may feel that if these things are not trustworthy or safe, nothing is. This can create a very serious crisis of faith that could even be worse than the other damage caused by narcissistic abuse, because spiritual wounds can be very hard to recover from. People may feel that they have nothing left to hold on to and that their very foundation has been shaken, but may not even realize they've been spiritually wounded. These wounds are not addressed because the person doesn't realize they are even there.
You may have heard of people needing to be "de-programmed" after being in a cult. Part of the reason that is necessary is because of these spiritual wounds. People need to learn to trust and believe again, especially in themselves. This is very similar to what happens when someone escapes a relationship with a narcissistic abuser. They've been immersed in a reality that is unreasonable, unfair and crazy-making. They've been required - forced - to live inside this reality and it's rules or face exile, devaluation or punishment. Or worse, in some cases. It took time and reinforcement to get into that mindset and it will take time and reinforcement to get out of it. Just as happens in a narcissistic relationship, people in a cult have often sacrificed everything to be a part of it, including themselves. If it is not what they thought it was, now what?
This is often the hardest thing to recover from, just like in a narcissistic relationship. Because eventually, most people realize something is wrong, Most people realize that things are not what they appear to be. Most people see red flags pretty early on, or red flags have been pointed out to them by others. Just like in any other kind of relationship with a narcissistic person, many people in cults report feeling that something was not right about the person or the situation. They are afraid to speak up, afraid to be cast out of the group or face some other kind of punishment. They are afraid to lose the part of themselves defined by the group or the system. Even people born into cults realize something isn't right, just as those raised in narcissistic families do. They may not realize that what's going on isn't normal, but they do know that they don't like it and that it's hurtful. On some level, they understand it's wrong - even though as children they can't do anything about it. Adults in these situations often feel the same way. It's only after they escape that they realize they could have done so sooner and this can be tough to deal with. It can be hard for people to forgive themselves, especially if others were affected by their decisions or behavior, such as their children.
Forgiving yourself can be hard. We always expect so much from ourselves. But it's important to remember that we are human beings. We make mistakes. We have weaknesses. We have flaws. We have vulnerabilities. We are all looking for the same things: acceptance, love, support, to belong, to matter, to not be judged, to be who we are. In order to protect ourselves from predators who would take advantage of our vulnerabilities, we must address and heal these vulnerabilities. The things we are seeking are inside ourselves. They really are. We don't need acceptance or validation from others when we can accept and validate ourselves. We like it from others, sure, but we don't need it. We don't depend on it. There is a very big difference there. And when we can trust ourselves to show up for us and make decisions in our own best interests, we don't have to fear others or look to them to give us what we can give to ourselves. We can have healthy relationships with other people and with ourselves.