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, 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
|Leader/Abuser||charismatic/charming/narcissistic/believes he or she is special||charismatic/charming/narcissistic/believes he or she is special|
|Victim||tends 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 People||other brainwashed individuals who monitor and report back infractions to the cult leader||enablers 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|
|Deception||the victim is never aware they are entering a cult; the message sounds harmless or even noble||the victim is never aware they are entering an abusive relationship; the abuser seems caring or sometimes even "angelic," doing all the right things|
|Lovebombing||excessive attention, niceness, praise||excessive praise, flattery; lavish gifts; mirroring|
|Hook||group/cult leader has "the" answers or will solve "all your problems"||the relationship is "special" and partners are "soulmates"|
|The Rejected||those who have left the group are shunned and have become the enemy||past exes of the abuser are all called cheaters/crazy/abusive|
|Outsiders||the outside world is framed as dangerous||friends and family of the victim are framed as enemies of the relationship by the abuser|
|Isolation||the victim is asked to give up things and people he or she loves and the group begins to dominate the victim's time||the 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 |
|the group promises that the victim will achieve [x] if the victim will follow their program||the abuser promises a "soulmate" relationship if only the victim will do what abuser says|
|Monitoring||lack of privacy and group members report infractions to cult leader||excessive monitoring of the victim by the abuser|
|the victim is not allowed to question the rules||the 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 obeyed||the abuser withdraws love for any perceived wrong or any challenge to any of the abusive behavior|
|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.)|
|cult leader begins to challenge the victim's identity by attacking core qualities he or she used to praise||abuser challenges the victim's identity through verbal abuse and putting down core qualities he or she used to praise|
|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.|
|beliefs take over the victim's life and become the victim's identity||victim will hide abuse and defend abuser to others; works hard to please abuser and achieve the ideal relationship|
|instilling fear of punishment and fear of leaving the group||instilling fear and dependence through constant intermittent reinforcement (reward and punishment system, isolation to outside perspectives, and the idea that others are enemies)|
|Leaving||either 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 escape||either 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|
|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 |
|dissociation, feelings of unreality||dissociation, feelings of unreality|
|Doubt||victim has times where he or she questions whether it was as bad as he or she thought it was||victim has times where he or she questions whether it was as bad as he or she thought it was|
|Loss of Entire World||loss of friends, core sense of self, beliefs about the world||loss of friends, core sense of self, beliefs about the world|
|Emotional Turmoil||trouble adjusting and making decisions, despite feeling of being free||trouble adjusting and making decisions, despite feeling of being free|
|Drastic Actions to Avoid Re-Initiation||victim may need to be accompanied by others when leaving the house to avoid being approached and re-initiated into the cult||victim 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 cult||victim may miss the abuser|
|victim considers returning to the cult||victim is tempted to return to the relationship|
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
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
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.