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Narcissistic Abuse Victim Syndrome is Like Being in a Cult

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Both cult victim syndrome and narcissistic abuse victim syndrome are horrific and can have lasting and traumatizing effects on the victim. No one wants to be a victim of a cult any more than they want to be a victim of narcissistic abuse. 

The one advantage that cult victim syndrome has over narcissistic abuse victim syndrome–if we can call anything about it an advantage–is simply that people understand what it is because they understand the concept of a “cult.” In contrast, what is narcissistic abuse? Even victims are left wondering.

The cultural frame of reference supplied by the word “cult” provides visibility that narcissistic abuse victims desperately need. 

 

What is a Cult?

We tend to think of cults as being relics of the past (the “hippie” era), as being “religious” in nature, or of having multiple members (at least dozens or hundreds). None of these things is necessarily true.

In fact, experts claim there are up to 10,000 cults operating in the United States at this time (LaRosa, 2018), most operating in secret. They can be as small as families and can be based on any type of ideology–political, racist, spiritual, business, or other. 

It isn’t so much what cults believe as what they do that defines them. The International Cultic Studies Association (n.d.) defines a cult as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.” 

That basically means that a group’s members strongly devote themselves to the group because they believe in its ideas, and to prove it, they are required to dedicate everything they have to it. 

Does this sound familiar?

 

Is It a Cult or Is It Narcissistic Abuse Victim Syndrome? A Case Study 

In a 2017 article, Buzzfeed broke the news that musician R. Kelly was holding six women seemingly against their will in properties outside of Chicago and Atlanta.

A former inhabitant of one of the homes described the conditions in which the women lived. Kelly took away their cell phones, forced them to cut off almost all contact with their friends and family, and forbade them from leaving the house. They had to call him “Daddy” and ask permission to eat, sleep, bathe, or use the bathroom.

In addition, he confiscated the women’s clothing and forced them to wear jogging suits so his male friends couldn’t see their bodies and forced them to turn and face the wall when his friends came over. 

He also forced the women to perform sex acts, which he filmed and showed to his friends. 

This all came to light when the parents of one of the women contacted the local authorities. They told police that Kelly was abusing their daughter and holding her in the house against her will.

But when the police went out to the home to check on her, the woman claimed she was fine.

Her parents told Buzzfeed that the last time they saw their daughter, “It was as if she was brainwashed…she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her.” They wanted to get her out and get her treatment for cult indoctrination.

Is their daughter in a cult or is she a victim of narcissistic abuse victim syndrome? 

 

What Do Cults and Narcissistic Abuse Victim Syndrome Have in Common?

To consider this question, I reviewed many lists of characteristics of cults by the following experts and organizations on cults and mind control: The International Cultic Studies Association, the Cult Information Centre, Rod and Linda Marshall-Dubrow, Steve Eichel, Steve Hassan, Margaret A. Singer, and Robert Jay Lifton. 

It turns out that cults and relationships with narcissists have many things in common. We can look at three different dimensions to see these commonalities:

  • the people involved
  • the features of the group or relationship
  • the effects on the victim or aftermath once leaving the cult or relationship. 

Here is a list of 29 similarities between cults and narcissistic abuse victim syndrome. This is not an exhaustive list. 

 

 

Cult Victim Syndrome

Narcissistic Abuse Victim Syndrome

The People

Leader/Abusercharismatic/charming/narcissistic/believes he or she is specialcharismatic/charming/narcissistic/believes he or she is special
Victimtends to be of average or high self-esteem and may be intelligent and strong, but may be perfectionistic, seeking a sense of belonging, and going through a transition in life likely have highly sought after qualities, but may be perfectionistic, seeking a sense of belonging, and going through a transition in life
Other Peopleother brainwashed individuals who monitor and report back infractions to the cult leaderenablers or flying monkeys who are charmed by the abuser and abuse the victim by proxy or may keep tabs on the victim for the narcissist

The Features/Tactics

Deceptionthe victim is never aware they are entering a cult; the message sounds harmless or even noblethe victim is never aware they are entering an abusive relationship; the abuser seems caring or sometimes even "angelic," doing all the right things
Lovebombingexcessive attention, niceness, praiseexcessive praise, flattery; lavish gifts; mirroring
Hookgroup/cult leader has "the" answers or will solve "all your problems"the relationship is "special" and partners are "soulmates"
The Rejectedthose who have left the group are shunned and have become the enemypast exes of the abuser are all called cheaters/crazy/abusive
Outsidersthe outside world is framed as dangerousfriends and family of the victim are framed as enemies of the relationship by the abuser
Isolationthe victim is asked to give up things and people he or she loves and the group begins to dominate the victim's timethe victim is asked to give up things and people he or she loves and the abuser begins to dominate the victim's time
The Promised
Ideal
the group promises that the victim will achieve [x] if the victim will follow their programthe abuser promises a "soulmate" relationship if only the victim will do what abuser says
Monitoringlack of privacy and group members report infractions to cult leaderexcessive monitoring of the victim by the abuser
One-Way
Communication
the victim is not allowed to question the rulesthe victim is not allowed to speak up about problems in the relationship or ask questions; circular conversation tactics and stonewalling are used to send the message that his or her concerns are irrelevant
Withdrawal of
Love for Falling
Out of Line
the group punishes for infractions by withdrawing love if not obeyedthe abuser withdraws love for any perceived wrong or any challenge to any of the abusive behavior
Boundary
Erosion
the group slowly begins to ask for things that challenge the victim's values until he or she is doing things they would never normally do (giving up mass sums of money, hurting other people, etc.)the abuser slowly begins to ask for things that challenge the victim's values until he or she is doing things they would never normally do (limiting their own freedom, sex acts, etc.)
Identity
Erosion
cult leader begins to challenge the victim's identity by attacking core qualities he or she used to praiseabuser challenges the victim's identity through verbal abuse and putting down core qualities he or she used to praise
Extreme
Stress
Conditions
creates conditions of extreme stress or anxiety (sleep deprivation, food deprivation, etc.)uses other forms of abuse--sexual abuse, financial or economic control, controlling access to resources such as food or transportation, uses psychological abuse such as making threats or constant accusations of cheating, etc.
Mind Control/
Brainwashing
beliefs take over the victim's life and become the victim's identityvictim will hide abuse and defend abuser to others; works hard to please abuser and achieve the ideal relationship
Manufacturing
Emotions
instilling fear of punishment and fear of leaving the groupinstilling fear and dependence through constant intermittent reinforcement (reward and punishment system, isolation to outside perspectives, and the idea that others are enemies)
Leavingeither the victim has to be "rescued" by friends and family or the victim is confronted with an event or act that is so outside his or her values that they realize something is wrong and they have to escapeeither the victim has to be "rescued" by friends and family or the victim learns of something the abuser has done (a double life) that is so shocking, that they walk away

The Effects

Extreme TraumaC-PTSDC-PTSD
Lack of Awareness
to Harm Suffered
victim may not realize he or she was in a cult even after leaving victim may not realize he or she was abused even after the relationship ends
Feelings of
Unreality
dissociation, feelings of unrealitydissociation, feelings of unreality
Doubtvictim has times where he or she questions whether it was as bad as he or she thought it wasvictim has times where he or she questions whether it was as bad as he or she thought it was
Loss of Entire Worldloss of friends, core sense of self, beliefs about the worldloss of friends, core sense of self, beliefs about the world
Emotional Turmoiltrouble adjusting and making decisions, despite feeling of being freetrouble adjusting and making decisions, despite feeling of being free
Drastic Actions to Avoid Re-Initiationvictim may need to be accompanied by others when leaving the house to avoid being approached and re-initiated into the cultvictim may need to change his or her number or even move away to avoid being drawn back into the relationship by the abuser
Identification victim may defend the cultvictim may miss the abuser
Impulse to
Return
victim considers returning to the cultvictim is tempted to return to the relationship
Alienation from
Normal World/
Lack of Support
victim may feel alienated being surrounded by people outside the cult who don't understand victim may feel alienated being surrounded by people outside the relationship who don't understand

 

What I hope can be made clear through this pattern is that there is a clear body of research documenting why and how people enter cults that seems to correlate well with why people enter relationships with narcissists. Once in them, the pattern persists to demonstrate how the dynamic of the group, whether it is many people or two people (a narcissist and a partner) keeps the victim there.  

The dynamic begins with a deception, a “message” communicated to a targeted victim by a person who is very good at deceiving people.

The victim is love-bombed into falling in love themselves with that message and with what’s possible.

The person who is good at deceiving people very slowly isolates the victim from anyone who can tell him or her later how awful the abuser is–or has turned those people against the victim.

The victim may do things the abuser doesn’t like, which are really quite normal under the circumstances, such as say, “Hey, this doesn’t seem like what I got myself into.” In response, the abuser withdraws love, telling the victim it’s something they’ve done that’s causing the problem and dangling the promised ideal just out of reach.

A barrage of brutal abuses, control techniques, and emotion management then rains down on the victim, and if they fall in line and give just a little more, it stops. 

The more the victims give up, the further away they get from themselves. They don’t know how they got there. Abusers tell them it’s their fault. If they fight back or question it, the punishment gets worse.

The cycle continues.

In a cult, Ian Haworth says the mind control can happen in a period of days:

“The victim is broken down physically and mentally so as to become highly vulnerable to the suggestions and wishes of the group and its leader… The end result is a sudden, drastic personality change in the individual. The cult tries to equate this with conversion. However, Conway and Siegelman describe the change of personality as snapping (Conway & Siegelman, Snapping. New York: Delta Books, l979). The new personality is unable to reason, to choose, to critically evaluate and is dependent on the cult to interpret reality and his reason for living. Having lost the freedom of choice, cultists will simply do what they are ordered and programmed to do by the leader… The intent of such a group is to control and keep its members for life or until the victims cease to be of value to the leader.”

In a relationship with a narcissist, depending on the intensity, this can happen more slowly–over a period of months or years. 

It hasn’t escaped some researchers that cult leaders look like abusers. In an article about how women in cults are treated, Alexandra Stein (2018) makes the explicit comparison:

“Cult leaders…engage in many of the same tactics of control as one sees in domestic violence cases. The leader slowly gains control of every element of a woman’s life and cuts off her close relationships, portraying him or herself as the sole remaining figure to whom the woman should turn; this frightening abuser confusingly becomes the apparent ‘safe haven.’ This results in a ‘trauma bond’ through which everything outside of the group and the relationship with the leader feels threatening, and the woman is no longer able to think clearly about her own survival needs. But, when it is the leader and the group that is the real threat, it creates a dangerous situation in which a woman can no longer trust her own feelings and perceptions.”

I would assume that this dynamic could work similarly using isolation, trauma bonding, and tactics of mind control for male victims or with female narcissists. There is nothing in the table above that would seem to indicate differently.

Now what can we do with this information?

 

Why Does It Matter If We Compare Cults to Narcissistic Abuse?

Some research already demonstrates that there are similarities between cults and high-control abusive situations (Zieman, 2017; Lalich & Tobias 2006), such as those that lead to narcissistic abuse victim syndrome.

Making the connection between the psychology of cults and narcissistic abuse victim syndrome more explicit could be useful as a model for:

  • how to explain the overall concept of narcissistic abuse to promote awareness in the general public
  • how to help victims themselves understand the nature of how they have been abused
  • how to help friends and family members of victims understand how they can be supportive
  • how to help therapists understand how to treat victims
  • how to train police officers and judges how to recognize and understand what this type of abuse looks like so that the criminal justice system and legal proceedings have a more complete understanding of domestic violence 

 

Sources

DeRogatis, J. (2019, January 6). Inside the Pied Piper of R. Kelly’s “Cult”. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jimderogatis/parents-told-police-r-kelly-is-keeping-women-in-a-cult

Dubrow-Marshall, L. (2016, December 2). How to talk someone out of a damaging cult. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://theconversation.com/how-to-talk-someone-out-of-a-damaging-cult-68930
 
Hassan, Steve. (2018). Combating Cult Mind Control. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press.

Haworth, I. (n.d.). Cult Information Centre: Caring for Cult Victims. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://cultinformation.org.uk/article_caring-for-cult-victims.html

International Cultic Studies Association. (n.d.). What Is a Cult. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.icsahome.com/articles/what-is-a-cult

Lalich, J. & Tobias, M. (2006). Take Back Your Life: Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.

LaRosa, P. (2018, February 25). How to identify a cult: Six tips from an expert. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-to-identify-a-cult-six-expert-tips/

Singer, M. T. (n.d.). Post-Cult After Effects. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.icsahome.com/articles/post-cult-after-effects-singer

Stein, A. (n.d.). Cult/Totalist Recruitment Warning Signs. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from http://www.alexandrastein.com/warning-signs.html

Stein, A. (2018, April 2). Cults are terrifying. But they’re even worse for women. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/cults-are-terrifying-they-re-even-worse-women-ncna862051

Zieman, B. (2017). Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What Every Cult Victim Wants Their Therapist to Know. North Charleston, South Carolina: Createspace.

 

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Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.

7 Comments

  1. Excellent! In my third year of recovery from narcissistic abuse I was watching the Leah Remini documentary on the cult of Scientology and as I watched I realized I knew exactly what had happened to the people trapped in the cult and how they felt. The next time I saw my therapist I told her I felt like I was leaving a cult myself and understood the trauma and difficulty of people who had been abused in cults. I also understood the shame they felt for falling for it and protecting and enabling the abuser/cult leaders for so long. She admitted it was similar in many ways.
    So happy to see someone else recognizes this as well. Thanks for all your research!

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi SEA: You are so welcome. I’m glad to hear that your therapist has been able to hear and validate your experiences. I think that there is a movement happening right now and we are all a part of it. Thank you for reading and being here. Stay strong! -Kristen

  2. This clearly demonstrates how this works. My therapist is also in agreement with this concept. One of the first things my ex NPD said to me as I began working as his dogsitter (bc I had rejected his dating advances for several month and I guess he saw dogsitting as his way to slowly lure me in) was that he had trained his dogs with Stockholm Syndrome, and he let out a big sorta chuckle but looking straight at me. I remember it feeling odd but knew he must be joking and I sorta tried to chuckle back. When I look back on this now, I can’t help but wonder if he knew right then what his plans were for me. The cult documentary, Holy Hell, on amazon prime, was very intense to watch and I cried a lot. It triggered non stop and broke my heart for his followers.
    Great article. Thank you.

    1. Your experience and mine clearly indicate there are some people who are actively conscious of what they are doing. I would call them sociopaths, psychopaths or sadists and unfortunately I have lived through my fair share of all these too. But, some with NPD , like my husband, are also victims of family dynamics that psychologists call pseudo-mutuality. I believe the cult-like mentality of his family is the source of his NPD. They had to hide what his parent really was to keep peace. I believe it’s the source of his hypomanic-depressive behavior (he is now on GABA, taurine and magnesium and has not had an episode in 8 months-the longest ever) and that is the source of his NPD. And I believe the trauma he suffered from his narcissistic parent as a very small child caused the hypomanic-depression and that has yet to be unveiled and dealt with bc his brain is so damaged that he can’t seem to go there. It’s all so complicated, but my opinion is ppl with NPD definitely have brain malfunction for some reason and some are predisposed to the disorder genetically. In my case, it seemed normal for ppl to behave like he did bc my sibling, I am now realizing, was genetically predisposed to NPD. The trauma I grew up with seemed like the norm so I took even more from him once we were married. I feel like my entire life I have been the child who screamed the emperor has no clothes.

      1. Thanks SEA and sorry for your experience. You seem to have come a long way and i hope the worst is behind you. I am in the beginning stages of working all this out and lucky to have a great therapist who understands all this and explains it to me. I was on the right track in educating myself but wasn’t making much progress other than instinctive but still very reactive…ways to keep him away, etc. and I think that caused more harm. I also really wanted people to know the truth but I was such a PTSD mess that I couldn’t articulate it. That probably made a bigger mess. I didn’t recognize myself and not how I had normally dealt with things before him. I think you adapt over time with what you’re presented with just out of need, confusion, brainwashing. And of course, he loves the reaction knowing he’s causing so much harm as he insists how much he cares. Ugh. The cult movie really freaked me out in his ability to get even heterosexual men to have sex with him. My NPD wasn’t like the cult leader but in that way….getting people to do things or believe him or believe in him, just gives me chills. Thanks for your reply and good luck to you, Kim

  3. My name is Jorge,
    I never understood what it ment what narcissism can do to me,after 18years me finding out my wife has been playing me for a fool, my Hart hit the ground and chattering in to peices, when approached her about everything I was finding out all the blame was on me as if I did something wrong I have never been on any type of social media she was always on it for years I trusted her never looked thru her phone or anything of that yes she has me down where she wanted me until one day coming home from vacation some guy message her I happened to be by her phone and so I got curious ran thru all her b.s.
    I never thought but always had that gut feelings all these years and all hellll broke loose still she continued to lie about men that she was talking to I felt like I was in a twighlight zone awful I could bring up anything to her or talk about anything because she’ll snap at me call me names that never thought in my life that she would dragged me thru the dirt my life has been turned up side down I’m so depressed over it I seen people go thru there struggles in life but never thought it would be me!!

    1. Hang in there Jorge. Recovery is so difficult and yes I went through the same thing. Four and a half years ago my husband revealed 20 years of affairs with two people who knew us well and who had made friends with me and our children and grandchildren to get to him. I literally nearly died from the grief and pain. We’re still married 43 years this year. And he is slowly learning how to treat others and recovering from NPD (his is more closely related to bi-polar disorder) as much as a person can be expected to do. But most important, is I have found myself again even though the pain is always going to be there. You can do it. You will be ok one day and you will find the self you lost and love yourself once again. Trust God to lead you to what you need to know and help you find healing and the people who will lead you to what He created you to be. Pray the 23rd psalm and pour your heart to Him. He will answer.

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