In 2016, I started writing my book The Gentle Souls Revolution. I'm finally in the homestretch with the proofreader working her magic. Part cult memoir, part post-cult research & analysis, and part recovery guide, I intend to publish it this fall.
While writing, I defined the word Cult for myself:
A group-perpetrated socio-pathology produced by a self-promoting narcissist/sociopath who attracts followers, creates a theater of absurdity & plays out his or her fabricated grandeur with a cast that caters to an audience of one.
Narcissistic relationships are all fictional fiefdoms. Pathologically selfish people view all interactions & relationships through the lens of win/lose. Winning means asserting control over other people.
That is why, if you're recovering from narcissistic abuse, I recommend the podcast Navigating Narcissism. Each episode offers analysis that will help you understand your bizarre misadventure. For example, in No Such Thing as a Good Cult, host & narcissism expert Dr. Ramani Durvursula interviews film maker and NXIVM whistle-blower, Mark Vicente.
The following five points jumped out for me. Every cult / narcissist employs these tactics:
1) The "hope" market: NXIVM marketed hope to idealists--people who were seeking meaningful lives and community. Those who question their worth are more vulnerable to the hope market.
Vicente was searching for goodness. He suffered from the all-too familiar "Never good enough" syndrome, despite the success of his film What the Bleep Do We Know. It made him a public figure. He shared his dream to "...use media to make the world better" in interviews. NXIVM recruiters listened. Then they sought him out. He told Dr. Ramani, “They studied me very carefully …they told me everything that I wanted to hear.”
2) The love bombing: Vicente's recruiter customized the bait: We really see you! We believe in you! We can help you do the thing, become the person & realize your potential! We applaud your dream! We get you!!
After marketing hope, cults/narcissists leverage hope. Manipulators dangle a fictional promise of enlightenment. This tactic is called future faking. If you work hard enough, they claim, you'll glean some allusive benefit. Over time you'll see that you can never do, or be, enough.
3) The grooming: Vicente calls this tactic “data-mining insecurities.” I love that description because it's so accurate. Pathologically selfish people & high-demand groups seduce to earn your trust. Then they use your trust to gather intel on your vulnerabilities. Then they weaponize your vulnerabilities .
When you (inevitably) push back, express doubts, or disagree manipulators deflect, dismiss, diminish and assassinate your character. They claim that your "flaws" are poisoning the well! You are failing and endangering the relationship, the group, the undefined mission, etc. That you need to "overcome your flaws" by shutting down your authentic voice and following their script.
4) The cultic identity theft: Vicente calls this, codified gaslighting. Again, that is so accurate! Manipulators find your emotions & needs inconvenient. They are especially put off by anger. So, they pathologize feelings characterizing emotions as untrustworthy.
Really, heeding your emotions is a critical survival skill. When you deny your emotions, you deny yourself, handing abusers license. Step away from those who characterize emotions--especially anger--as flaws. If someone tells you that you need to "work harder" to overcome human emotions, run!
5) The self-gaslighting: This is what happens when you stick around. Every former cult member, or narcissistic abuse survivor, I've spoken with to date tells me, "Then I started gaslighting myself." They describe absorbing messages like, your perceptions are inaccurate; your feelings and thoughts are "wrong." Then they try to "fix" perceptions, thoughts and feelings that don't need fixing. This becomes a circular, mental prison. The more they try to "fix" their flaws, the crazier they feel.
This is psychological violence. Cults / narcissists rip minds and hearts to shreds. Self-serving abusers leverage self-doubt. Targets who were uncertain at the start start questioning their sanity. It's easier to control insecure people. The tradeoff becomes choose the group/relationship or your self--you can’t have both.
Fortunately, recovery is self-reclamation. Vicente's reclamation shared five key points
1) Facing and accepting traumatic betrayal: It sucks to admit that you trusted untrustworthy people. People who intentionally lie to betray others are evil. Your faith in humanity is tested by admitting that some are capable of such callousness. You have to accept that some people lose their humanity. Vicente had to admit to himself that NXIVM was a fiction. The leaders had deceived him from start to finish.
I had to do that, too. For me, I had to admit the cult leader never cared about me to reclaim and free my mind. Many people in such situations cling to the fallacy, because the truth hurts. People who admit to being duped often find that others fall right into victim blame. That is why leaving cults / narcissists is a struggle. You are forced to admit that you were duped and give up on your hopes and investment. You learn that many people reward the abusers and blast judgement on the victims. You have to admit to yourself that your lack of inner faith emboldened selfish people who convinced you to betray your own goodness.
Vicente said, “I wanted there to be goodness … ." When he admitted to himself that the goodness never existed NXIVM, he saw the truth: NXIVM was the manifestation of evil.
He said, "You're trying to keep your psyche glued together, when you know, on a very deep level, that something's not right."
It's nearly impossible describe this experience: cults / narcissists don't merely deceive, they claim & present an alleged "truth," while truth is the polar opposite. The International Cultic Studies Association's executive director, Michael Langone, calls this phenomenon, "Evil posing as good."
2) The loss of innocence: Once you understand that pathological people co-opt the best in others for selfish gain, you see that your doubts and emotions were your inner wisdom sending out smoke signals. You start trusting yourself and negating the manipulator--a critical piece in recovery.
3) Clarity replaces confusion: your inner conflict falls away. Sanity returns. You find peace in authentic self. When Vicente saw the truth, he said, "I no longer felt crazy. Because I had felt crazy for 12 years."
4) Creating space: Vicente took time and space to sit with his allegedly pesky and inferior emotions. A healthy rage replaced confusion. He recognized, "Something had been done to me. I'd been damaged."
5) Honoring your emotions & emotional needs: Rage led to the obsessive research on narcissism and cults. The psycho-education piece was also critical to my reclamation. I learned that cults and narcissistic abusers have always employed the same tactics. Once you recognize those patterns, you understand a lot more about human nature & know how to protect yourself.
Protecting yourself requires self-trust. Self-trust requires self-confidence. Authentic self confidence is critical for survival. With it, not only are you better positioned to deal with challenges, you build the toolset to thrive. Without it, life is exponentially harder.
Betrayal trauma bruises psychologically and emotionally. Narcissistic people destroy love and trust to get what they want. They don't care who they hurt; in fact, malignant and sociopathic people (like Raniere) often feed off of inflicting pain on others.
If you are a Gentle Soul such callousness is inconceivable. Sadly, it is necessary to see and accept that it exists. We are living in a narcissistic era. The evidence of selfish people inflicting pain on others without a care is in our faces every day.
The silver lining: once you accept that evil does pose as good, you learn how to spot the danger signals & you develop the toolset to protect yourself. You heal. You can thrive. You can help others do the same.
So, society needs you to heal and thrive.
Recovery begins by seeing that parasitic people deserve nothing from you. Treat your empathy like a priceless jewel and protect it. The Gentle Souls Revolution is a book for empathic people who got hurt because untrustworthy people leveraged their gifts.
The revolution starts with boundaries -- just say no.
More to come in the near future.