Many people who’ve gotten out of a relationship with a narcissist describe their experience as one of having been “brainwashed”. When they recall how they acted in ways that were so unlike them, and how they put up with things they never imagined they would endure, they look back on their past experience with a sense of astonishment, disbelief, and shock, as well as more than a little embarrassment and self-recrimination.
For this reason, survivors of such toxic relationships tend to keep their experiences to themselves, fearing that if they shared what they’ve undergone, other people would find them naïve, gullible, and foolish. After all, who in their right mind would stay wholeheartedly committed to someone who is deceitful, unfaithful, abusive, controlling and manipulative?
But survivors of narcissistic abuse might gain a more helpful perspective on their regrettable past if they consider – what might seem surprising at first blush – that narcissists employ on their partners many of the very same techniques of “mind control” that cult leaders use in order to control and manipulate their followers. And while the ideas of mind control and brainwashing have often been dismissed by the psychological community, there appears now to be a growing awareness that the phenomenon of psychological manipulation demands more serious investigation.
But whether we speak of “brainwashing” and “mind control”, or merely of “psychological manipulation”, there’s no denying the fact that narcissistic individuals and cult leaders share a common repertoire of underhanded psychological techniques that they use in order to win over and control their targets, all while exploiting them in ways that ultimately do deep damage to their psyches. In this article, I present eight ways in which narcissistic individuals operate like a stereotypical cult leader.
When considering the mechanisms of mind control, it’s not a matter of the victim instantly losing all free will and suddenly becoming a mere puppet at the command of the narcissist or cult leader. Rather, mind control is something that is gradually brought about in victims after they are subjected – over time – to a set of manipulative psychological techniques that are designed to change their behavior and alter their perception of the world around them. These techniques can be described as (1) building rapport, (2) love bombing, (3) isolating the victim, (4) playing the parent, (5) deterring independent thought, (6) sleep deprivation, (7) employing fear and intimidation, and finally (8) the game of hurt and rescue. Let’s briefly consider each of these manipulative techniques.
In their efforts to recruit new members, cult leaders are eager to learn all they can about their targets so that they can later use the information they acquire in order to control their victims; and in order to get their targets to open up to them, they need to build rapport with them. They accomplish this by presenting themselves as caring individuals that share the same interests and concerns as their targets. They are skilled actors. They lean forward as they listen intently to their target’s words and they study their target’s non-verbal behavior and try to mimic it in order to further create the impression of a kindred soul and thereby gain the victim’s trust.
People who have gotten involved with a narcissist (or other low-empathy individual) invariably note how that person seemed to show genuine concern for them in the initial stages of the relationship. Like the cult leader, the narcissist is eager to learn all he can about his potential victim so that he can later exploit whatever vulnerabilities he may uncover. This helps to explain why the narcissist appears so sweet, considerate and caring early in the relationship. It’s their way of building trust and getting their targets to open up to them.
The narcissist likewise feigns shared interests, emotions, and experiences in order to create the illusion of being a kindred soul or even the “soul mate” of their target. They try to mimic as best they can the person they are grooming as their partner, and because narcissists fundamentally lack an inner-self, they are good at mirroring their potential new supply. In these ways, they are thus able to begin eliciting a strong sense of attachment from their victims.
Love bombing is an attempt to gain influence over a person through lavish demonstrations of attention and affection. It is a concentrated effort that involves the prolonged use of flattery, verbal seduction, and affection, as well as lots of attention to a target’s problems and struggles in life. Love bombing holds out to its victim the promise of instant companionship and unconditional love. It is a deceptive ploy that cult leaders employ all too well in their recruitment efforts. A member of a cult called Buddhafield (which disbanded around 2006) well captured the experience in remarking, “Constantly, your soul was being fed with love and inspiration and awe.”
Love Bombing is likewise used by predatory narcissists in their intimate relationships, where it takes the form of intense, unrelenting calls and text messages, flowers and other gifts, invitations to meet the family, requests to move in together, and the inundation of their target’s social media sites with cutesy, flirty messages – which will often begin within hours of the first meeting.
The general technique of love-bombing promotes the narcissist’s goals of control and exploitation by effectively disabling the target’s capacity for critical thought and encouraging their inclination toward wishful thinking. The need for love is a deep-seated human desire and we go to great lengths to try and satisfy it. So, when people find themselves being subjected to an overwhelming amount of love and acceptance, they are reluctant to examine the reasons ‘why’, since they are subconsciously afraid of losing what they’ve long been desperately looking for. Over time, and used in combination with other techniques, love bombing results in the target abandoning their critical capacities altogether and becoming blindly dependent upon their manipulator for their view of things.
The technique of Isolation is employed by cult leaders to prevent their followers from having contact with outsiders, including their family and friends. The tactics they use to isolate their targets are usually presented in the guise of a concern to protect the group from harmful outside influences. In reality, the technique is designed to ensure that their followers are exposed only to the cult leader’s own perverse propaganda without any critical scrutiny, and more generally to make their targets more dependent on the cult leader by eliminating other sources of support and affection. In the Buddhafield, members were instructed to detach from their families in order to bring them closer to the leader (who called himself “Michel”) and the gifts of love and wisdom that he had to offer.
Similarly, narcissists try to isolate their partners in order to deprive them of social support, thereby weakening their defenses and making them more dependent on the narcissist. Of course, this is not how the narcissist will present the matter. Instead, the target will initially hear seemingly innocent comments like these: “I get lonely when you’re not here”, “I wish you would spend more time with me”, “I don’t have a good feeling about that friend of yours”, “Your sister doesn’t seem to like me.” (Later, when the narcissist feels more in control and starts to show his true colors, these comments become: “Your friends are bitches and whores”, “You’re a slut, just like your sister”, ‘Everyone knows that you and your friends are trash”, “Are you having a lesbian relationship with that friend of yours?”)
Eventually, under the pressure of the narcissist’s wheedling and abuse, the victim withdraws from his or her family and circle of friends, leaving him or her wholly dependent on the narcissist for love, support, and perspective.
We all carry with us memories from childhood of feeling helpless and turning to our parents for comfort. Involvement with a cult or a relationship with a narcissist can reduce us again to the level of a vulnerable child, which is precisely what they want, since they can then step in as the parent figure that we instinctively turn to in such a condition. And once they’ve assumed that role in our lives, they can then start to dominate us in the manner of an overbearing parent.
Many women who’ve had a Narcissistic partner report that their abuser dictated what they wore, who they could be friends with (if anyone), gave them a curfew, insisted they wear little to no makeup, sneered at them if they fixed their hair, and generally wanted them to appear unkempt. Female narcissists may insist on a particular (unbecoming) hairstyle for their partner or make them feel they’re clumsy and unrefined, pointing out things like how they use their silverware or carry themselves in public.
These requests are sometimes conveyed in a civil, diplomatic way. Other times, the Narcissist rages and shouts until their target acquiesces. Psychological studies have shown that such things as tone of voice, mannerisms, and other non-verbal behaviors play an important role in communication. What typically happens when someone talks to us as if they were our parent, in a ‘fatherly’ or ‘motherly’ tone of voice? Chances are it will start to influence and shape our mindset, our feelings for the person speaking in this way, and our emotions in general! Manipulators are aware of these things and adept in transporting another adult back to a state of childhood with its associated emotions of wanting to please and feel loved and be accepted.
In studying manipulators, Robert Cialdini found that they were doing subtle and barely noticeable things to influence the emotions of their targets by, for instance, creating in them a sense of obligation, fostering in them a fear of loss, and making them feel a sense of subservience. Most targets are unaware that this is going on, and since this form of psychological manipulation generally works outside of people’s normal consciousness it is often incredibly powerful.
David Christopher, a former member the Buddhafield, likened his programming within the group to the typical programming that one experiences in childhood.
“Your own family has a way of being, and you grow up in that programming, and there’s a language that you use, and a lot of times your parents have an idea of what you should be, and if you want to have an independent thought that goes against that, you might be guilted or shamed because you’re trying to go against the grain,” Christopher continued. “That is a cult. What I often tell people is, I joined a cult to escape a cult. The cult I left was my family. I left my not-so-good programming for a programming I thought was better. And it was better, much higher. But then I had to leave that programming only to find my own authenticity and my own voice, without anybody else’s conditioning. For me, that’s empowerment.”
Cult leaders frown upon members who show any inclinations towards autonomous thinking. The “thinking,” so to say, has already been done for them by the cult leader; the appropriate response is simply to submit. Any questioning of the leader is treated as a flaw of character and intellect that must be corrected if the member is ever to attain the “gifts” that the leader has to offer.
Likewise, failure to see things the way the narcissist does is taken by them to be a challenge to their sense of intellectual superiority. Anytime you voice concerns about their behaviors, you are viewed not as a loving friend who has their best interests in mind, but instead as a troublesome whiner who needs to be brought into line.
Narcissists don’t care about the wants or needs of anyone but themselves, and in order to make you a better tool to serve their needs they try to make you to believe that you’re not intelligent enough to make important decisions on your own. Anyone who questions or criticizes them is viewed as an “enemy” who is wrongheaded and incapable of clear, logical thinking. Like cult leaders, they use humiliation and guilt to instill self-doubt in their targets and thus weaken their capacity to think for themselves. Typical remarks that the narcissist uses in this connection include: “You are listening to the voices again”, “You lie to yourself and believe your own lies”, “Remember what happened last time we went with your idea?”, or “It’s cute how you want to be as smart as me”.
Getting regular, restful sleep helps you stay focused and in control of yourself. Your body uses sleep to refresh areas of the brain that control mood and behavior, and to process the memories and knowledge that you gathered throughout the day. When a person is deprived of wholesome rest and severe fatigue sets in, their critical faculties are impaired and they become more susceptible to being controlled by others. (In fact, under these conditions the brain enters into what is called the “theta state” that is closely associated with hypnosis.)
Sleep deprivation is a popular technique used by shady cops to coerce false confessions. It’s also a common technique of mind control used by unscrupulous cult leaders. By depriving their followers of healthy rest, the cult leader decreases their ability to concentrate and focus and impairs their ability to process information and react to signals in the environment, all of which encourages disorientation and a sense of vulnerability in the victims, leaving them more susceptible to the cult leader’s controlling influence.
Similarly, we see that narcissists often do things that serve to deprive their partners of healthy sleep, such as starting arguments at a late hour. They frequently deploy this technique in situations where their partner is already a little on edge, for instance, in the lead-up to a high-stakes meeting or exam, or before an important speech or job interview. For this reason, in depriving their partners of sleep, the narcissist not only leaves their partners in a less self-confident state, but also effectively sabotages their projects. The result is that the victim is left feeling not only disoriented and vulnerable, but also worthless, especially when the narcissist turns around and rubs the resulting failure in the face of the victim.
Cult leaders are also experts in exploiting the basic human emotion of fear. They tend to surround themselves with an aura of power and authority. Some will claim to have divine authority to dictate virtually all aspects of the lives of their followers. Their attempt to secure the loyalty and obedience of their followers is enhanced by not-so-subtle threats to their physical and spiritual well-being for any acts of disobedience or nonconformity. For example, a former member of Buddhafield was told that he would die within a year if he chose to leave to group.
Similarly, cult leaders will foster the more insidious fears associated with the feeling of guilt by putting their followers down for any traits or behaviors that are associated with independence and self-confidence. To this end, cult leaders will often insist upon having “cleansing sessions” where members are required to confess their deepest and most intimate thoughts, since this allows the cult leader to gain the information he needs to instill feelings of guilt and worthlessness. As a result, members lose self-confidence and feel helpless, making obedience seem like a small price to pay for the “salvation” that the leader has to offer.
In a similar fashion, former victims of narcissistic abuse often lament about how their narcissist took the sensitive information gained from intimate conversations – information about their deepest fears and desires or about their feelings of worthlessness — and used it against them, either by threatening to humiliate their partners by exposing this information to others in a smear campaign, or simply by making their victims feel guilty for having what are in fact common but often concealed human sentiments.
This final tactic likewise preys on the emotion of fear. Here, the manipulator causes their target a great deal of stress or anxiety and then steps in to relieve that stress, reinforcing the idea that he or she is the victim’s one true savior. For instance, cult leaders us the fear of ostracization to keep group members in check, rewarding them with acceptance in exchange for their compliance. The most common tactic used by the Narcissist along these lines is the silent treatment, which evokes the target’s fear of abandonment, which the narcissist can then relieve with his return. The silent treatment is executed by the Narcissist when his or her victim attempts to establish a boundary or shows displeasure at something the Narcissist says or does, such as taking another lover, having a porn obsession, being financially irresponsible, or being mean to children in the household.
Repeated cycles of fear and relief are emotionally exhausting. When the Narcissist returns after these numerous episodes of the silent treatment, their victim is emotionally defenseless and more prone to accepting the unacceptable to avoid having their fear of abandonment triggered yet again. It often leads to the victim begging for the Narcissist to stay and offering apologies even when the victim has done no wrong. (This fear-and-relief cycle, together with the phenomena of trauma-bonding and biological addiction, explains why victims of emotional abuse experience cravings and obsessive thoughts about reuniting with the narcissist once No Contact has been implemented.)
Emotional Manipulation is Abuse
The above discussion has merely scratched the surface of the techniques of emotional manipulation that are used by both narcissists and cult leaders.
If you constantly wonder about what’s going on in your relationship, obsess about what you could be doing differently, feel like the problems with your partner fall solely on your shoulders, are constantly fearful and anxious and feeling like less of a person than before you met your partner, then it’s highly likely you have been the victim of emotional manipulation.
Narcissists know how to manipulate your vulnerabilities and undermine anything that will alter the balance of power inside your relationship with them. Recovery from the psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual abuse of a relationship with a narcissist is imperative for you to put yourself and your life back together.
The longer a target suffers through narcissistic abuse, the more they are programmed through the conditioning of insidious techniques of psychological manipulation. Once you finally leave the narcissist, you will still feel chronically detached from yourself and your life for a time. You can even find yourself missing your abuser, and feeling a lot of self-doubt because of that. But, in closing, I share seven ways you can begin to deprogram yourself in order to regain self-trust and diminish self-doubt in the aftermath of narcissistic abuse:
Learning the warning signs of psychological manipulation inside relationships with narcissists is very important. Knowledge is power, so empowering yourself to see the warning signs listed above can encourage you to overcome your fear of falling victim again.
 Recently, the American Psychological Association was called upon to form a task force to investigate the purported phenomenon of mind control in destructive cults. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov02/cults.aspx. The phenomenon of psychological manipulation has been studied by several prominent psychologists, including Robert Hare, George Simon, and the late Harriet Braiker
 Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Who’s Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN 0-07-144672-9
 Standard, P. (2016, July 05). How to Escape From a Cult in the 21st Century. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from https://psmag.com/how-to-escape-from-a-cult-in-the-21st-century-d3778a8f7b30#.p6wu0gejt
Kim Saeed is a recognized relationship and new life educator specializing in helping narcissistic abuse survivors to heal, rebuild, find purpose, and live joyfully after No Contact. In 2013, she founded Let Me Reach, a life transformation company that teaches people to flourish after toxic relationships.