Cults, Narcissism and Digging Deeper I just saw the recent podcast by Chris Shelton in which he interviewed Daniel Shaw. It was Sensibly Speaking Podcast # 159. I wanted to comment on some of the issues that they brought up and give some referral to other ideas that flesh out what they discussed. They took on a lot of essential ideas regarding cults, abusive relationships and totalitarian groups. I wanted to add a bit and give both context to what they discussed and references to supplement their discussion for serious students of cults and human psychology. I read the book by Daniel Shaw on Traumatic Narcissism and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand cults, cult leaders, abusive relationships, authoritarian regimes or psychology. It is expensive but worth the cost. It's truly excellent at focusing on many important aspects of the relationships between extreme abuser's like cult leaders and followers. I actually wrote several blog posts on narcissism and Scientology and the book Traumatic Narcissism in the past. I wrote Scientology's Parallel In Nature: Malignant Narcissism. Chris Shelton and Daniel Shaw bring up several points worth commenting on. They bring up the fact that all sorts of people are recruited into cults, unlike the common prejudice that only especially gullible or stupid or insane people end up in cults, which cult experts like Margaret Singer who interviewed over four thousand ex cult members debunked. She realized all sorts of people are recruited into cults. She covered it in detail in her book Cults In Our Midst. They also discuss narcissism and its origins. In his book Daniel Shaw covers the idea of narcissism resulting from abuse or idealization. It's important to understand the reality that some people appear narcissistic from an early age and never change and others develop narcissism after adulthood, either through abuse or excessive praise. Idealization involves treating a person as perfect or superior to others. It can be specific like telling a child they are better than one sibling or broader like telling them their race is superior or their religion or nation of telling them they are personally superior to everyone else in the world. In theory following this hypothesis or metaphor an adult can say become rich and famous and be surrounded by praise and late in life develop narcissism. Even after their twenties or thirties. Perhaps humans just should not be praised too highly. They discuss recovery from narcissism and I believe that it can be recovered from to a significant degree for many, maybe even most, people. People often develop extremely narcissistic personalities in cults and often but definitely not always are able to achieve genuine humility and regret for their misdeeds and even gain empathy and compassion for others and long term marked improvement in behavior after leaving cults and realizing the ideology they used as dogma to justify their past behavior was false and that they were simply wrong in their previous attitudes and actions. Shaw is correct in pointing out that some cult leaders are unsuccessful at adjusting to loss of power over others if they lose it. Charles Manson was observed to have gone insane in prison and Lafayette Ronald Hubbard reportedly has his sanity diminish severely near the end of his life, and it was not too good from the 1950s to start with. Numerous cult leaders go through a process Shaw described as florid decompensation. The leader of the Japanese cult Aum Shirikyo that pulled off the subway attacks Shoko Asahara was described as going through this process in court by Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton has written numerous books on cults and persuasion and is possibly the top living cult expert. If Margaret Singer were still alive I would say they are the top two in my opinion. The process is described by Shaw in detail in his book and is the worst fear of a narcissist. Some commit suicide to avoid it. It is a complete breakdown of the separate parts of the fractured mind of a narcissist. In theory they have repudiated the negative aspects of self they have and through continuous and pathological denial ended up with a split mind. They have feelings of worthlessness, stupidity, incompetence, helplessness, need, shame, built and imperfection held away from themselves. These feelings are externalized and projected onto others through narcissistic survival methods. They drive narcissists to be like ravenous beasts, knowing no mercy or compassion, only hunger. They hunger for narcissistic supply. That is something that will support and feed their delusions. Their delusions are the opposite of the repudiated aspects of self because in truth they are denials of them. Narcissistic supply is attention that supports the narcissistic delusions. Being able to dominate others serves to do this. Narcissistic delusions include feeling superior to ones that can be dominated, no matter how unethically or abusively. Power over others is proof to a narcissist of superiority and often the most desired supply. Sometimes dominance is not achievable but irritation is. Being able to annoy or upset people is proof of power to narcissists and is a form of supply. It's better than nothing. The lowest supply may be sympathy and pity. The narcissist who cannot control people through dominance or covert persuasion or even irritate people is called a collapsed narcissist. They cannot maintain their illusion. Perhaps a big strong bully has aged and in his fifties or sixties or seventies cannot threaten and harass people. Or the wealthy executive that was caught embezzling and convicted very publicly cannot hang onto his power and image or the member of a church publicly exposed having an affair or being forced out of the closet if he condemned homosexuality cannot maintain a facade of self righteous hypocrisy. It is often the man who pretended to be smarter and better than everyone else that arrives at old age and and has no record of success to support his boasts and is mired in mediocrity, undeniably. He may have has businesses fail, divorce, a poor career, financial failures or several of the above. When no one humors the lies and boasts of a narcissist or fears their wrath or even will let them annoy them or everyone simply ignores their attempts at all of the above they often collapse. They have one last tactic to hold off the worst of choices. They can play the victim. They tell a tale of everyone and everything being unfairly against them. They have never caught a good break or met a good person and that is their one flaw. They are betrayed everywhere. Like Hitler when he blamed everyone else for his failures in the war. Some narcissists fail even as collapsed narcissists and cannot get the sympathy they desire. They may then with no support or validation of any kind go through florid decompensation into schizophrenia or madness. Some sense that their fraying ends of sanity are about to be completely unraveled and rather than face this they commit suicide. It may be to escape the mental health consequences of their decline rather than any external ones. So it follows that their delusions are of perfection, infallible character, conduct and knowledge. They are of a guilt and shame free past and superiority to everyone else. The highest narcissists see themselves sometimes as perfect servants of God or even gods themselves or superior to God. Faith or its absence does not indicate narcissism. But faith may shape the expression of narcissism to fit the faith. Their delusions are an escape from unbearable self images, not even reality. Another issue that Shaw described is the method of a narcissist in denying imperfections and shame and projecting them onto others. This as pathological behavior becomes dissociation, a stronger separation mentally than denial. In denial the conscious mind is seen as not accepting or deceiving itself regarding unacceptable realities while the subconscious mind does not. Deep down a person knows what is being rejected but through self deception the conscious mind rejects the unacceptable. In dissociation the process is stronger and deeper. People dissociate from trauma to survive it. We understand a person can dissociate from experiences like rape and combat and torture but many more experiences involve dissociation. Often cult indoctrination involves trauma and dissociation. In cognitive dissonance theory conflicts between beliefs and reality create discomfort that can be confusion, blankness, reelingness, anxiety, panic, emotional discomfort like shame or self doubt. In any case it is unpleasant. ( An online article had this definition. · In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.) The reactions to this discomfort are often decisions or changes in beliefs, emotions or behavior intended to relieve the discomfort. In theory it is most important to protect the self or ego or if safe to pick a decision that validates the ego, it reinforces the self identity. So when a person has a conflict like belief in self as a good person that only does good things coming up against a conflicting reality like the knowledge that they were unethical in their conduct, perhaps they lied and blamed an innocent person for their own mistake to avoid consequences and see that as evil. They can feel discomfort as cognitive dissonance and have the distortion of denying the truth consciously and deciding the person they lied about is bad and deserved to be ruined anyway. That is a cognitive distortion. In cults members deny negative aspects of the cult and leader. This becomes habitual and these cognitive distortions result in dissociation. The cult members dissociate from the abuse and exploitation they suffer and the negative evidence against the leader. This accounts for why it is so extremely difficult to get people out of cults. Their own minds reinforce the prison of mind by merely thinking. Their own thoughts, emotions and behavior continuously create and bolster the elements holding them captive. Through using the human vulnerability to both cognitive dissonance and trauma and the methods of coping via cognitive distortion and denial and dissociation the cult leader exploits the blindspots in human beings to covertly enslave them mentally. The problem with telling them they are experiencing this is their mindset and habits. They will not see that they are being mistreated, that the cult leader is imperfect, or immoral that they are being abusive in serving the cult or that they are incorrect in automatically seeing enemies of the cult as doing what they accuse the cult leader of doing, including lying. So in a mindset of pathological denial of abuse by the leader and dissociation from the trauma caused by the cult and cognitive distortions that support the cult leader and cult ideology while also projecting the negative traits into cult critics it is very easy to remain in the cult and extremely difficult to reject or even question or doubt the cult. A severe divorce from critical thinking has occurred, a severe divorce from independent thinking has occurred. Protecting the mind from cognitive dissonance and trauma has become sacred. It has made avoiding certain unpleasant thoughts, ideas, emotions and behavior unbearable. By having things that cannot be faced the mind puts them outside the realm of being doubted,questioned or criticized. Anything that is in that state is automatically outside critical thinking. Cognitive Dissonance theory is a subject, not just a phrase or idea or paragraph. I recommend the book A Theory Of Cognitive Dissonance by Leon Festinger to get an introduction to the subject. I have written a long series of posts on the book and on and Cognitive Dissonance theory regarding Scientology. Festinger covered this subject in extreme detail and used very clear and concise information to explain the subject at length. Regarding charisma and cult leaders several questions came up. I think several important points regarding cult leaders should be brought up. The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error. Hannah Arendt Hannah Arendt (1968). “Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism”, p.70, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” ― Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements I want to close with a couple quotes from Robert Jay Lifton regarding charisma in cult leaders and the essential problem with the cultic mindset and any simplistic understanding or approach to cults. They are both from an interview with Bill Moyers done right after the 911 terrorist attacks. It is available free online. ROBERT LIFTON: Well, you start out with the term charisma. It’s widely used, but people don’t really think of what it really means what I this it means, someone has charisma when he or she offers you new meaning in your life and new vitality. And as well as that, also immortality. So vitality and immortality are offered. That’s a lot. And if people feel that these are available to them, they will follow someone, not only to the ends of the earth, but to the ends of killing, as you said. And the killing of large numbers of people is not perceived as murder, it’s perceived as carrying out a necessary act for a higher purpose. So they block out from their minds the deaths of actual people, and they see that higher purpose as more important. It’s always dangerous when you block out human beings that you’re harming. What I call psychic numbing, or not perceiving them as human beings, and that’s what you can do when you become a disciple of a charismatic person. ROBERT LIFTON: Well, I think the fundamentalist self is a combination of what I call followingism, all or none convictions, wanting to simplify everything and having little tolerance for nuance and for uncertainty, but also is past oriented. It imagines a past of perfect harm harmony that never was, that’s at the heart of the fundamental self. And it’s a very very dangerous mind set in the world, because this is a time when we need nuance, we have problems that we don’t understand. And that haven’t been ever presented to people before. And if you just close down with an absolute decision before you’ve even examined the problems, you have no chance of solving them.