This is a reference post, intended to serve as a quick go-to when the story I am telling just doesn’t add up. Think of it as a cult/psych 101… except that I am not a psychologist!
Also, I am not a huge fan of labels and boxes and sometimes I feel like all these phycological labels get thrown around haphazardly and become… hazardous. But I recognise that it’s very comforting and helpful to know that some of the things we experience are shared experiences, that we are not alone and it is empowering when you have the vocabulary to describe your struggles, experiences and triumphs. Also, it’s great to have some apt terminology in your back pocket that you can whip out at any moment and say, “See, this is real, I’m not crazy and I’m not making this shit up.”
Cults are a little understood psychological phenomenon. It takes two to tango in this dance of power play and while there is plenty of research out there about ex cult members there is little to no material on cult leaders. I guess that’s not surprising because in order to get proper research you’ll need to find a cult leader who recognises that that is what they are. “Sure, I’ll do a psych evaluation for you. As a cult leader, I have to say that I am just so honoured to be part of this important work.” Yeah, that probably won’t happen, but nothing is impossible. Anyway, what we do know for now is based on ex-culties recollections and all the signs point towards narcissism being the driving force behind cult leaders.
So here are a couple of terms that may be helpful:
Although love bombing is usually referred to in the context of a romantic relationship, it is also a term that can often be found in explanations about the psychological dynamics in a cult. And considering that love bombing is a tactic associated with narcissists and that cult leaders are almost always narcissists, then, well, you know.
Essentially love bombing is a clever ploy of manipulation.
In a cult setting new recruits/potential members are lavished with love, attention, praise and acceptance. Even when they behave in a way that isn’t acceptable within the cult’s culture, their actions are met with tolerance, patience and humour.
So when you wonder to yourself how someone can find a cult so appealing, then this is a big part of the answer.
Cognitive dissonance is basically the way we rationalise things in an effort to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, even if what we do conflicts with our core values.
There are various settings where this can occur but within a cult, this dissonance is closely related to peer pressure. For instance, a new recruit may feel that they never get enough sleep and are deprived of free time, yet, when they look around them they see all the other cult members smiling and full of energy, they convince themselves that if they go along with the routine they too will be smiling and happy.
Or a new member may be confronted with actions that oppose their moral code such as seeing a child being spanked and scolded. But the new member will justify these actions because no one else seems bothered and because the people doing these things are the same people who have gained the new member’s trust by, you guessed it – LOVE BOMBING!
Gaslighting is a sly way of making you feel like you are doing/saying something wrong even when you know you are in the right. I found these checklists on HEALTHLINE and they pretty much sum up the way I felt most of my adult life at Alon.
Someone who’s gaslighting might:
- insist you said or did things you know you didn’t do
- deny or scoff at your recollection of events
- call you “too sensitive” or “crazy” when you express your needs or concerns
- express doubts to others about your feelings, behavior, and state of mind
- twisting or retelling events to shift blame to you
- insist they’re right and refuse to consider facts or your perspective
Signs and symptoms of gaslighting:
Experiencing gaslighting can leave you second-guessing yourself constantly, not to mention overwhelmed, confused, and uncertain about your ability to make decisions on your own.
Other key signs you’re experiencing gaslighting include:
- an urge to apologize all the time
- believing you can’t do anything right
- frequent feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or worry
- a loss of confidence
- constantly wondering if you’re too sensitive
- feeling disconnected from your sense of self, as if you’re losing your identity
- believing you’re to blame when things go wrong
So it goes like this: you’re new and skeptical, therefore in order to keep you from leaving, you’re showered with good vibes and friendliness until you eventually let your guard down. That’s LOVEBOMBING
Then, when you’re beginning to enter the inner circle of cult life and being included in meetings etc. that only members normally attend you may be confronted with confusing and conflicting situations but you reconcile what you are seeing or experiencing with yourself because all these other awesome people seem to be okay with it. That’s COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (or what most of us can relate to as peer pressure, just more subversive I guess).
Now that you appear to be serious about hanging around and showing some commitment, the tables start to turn and where you were once met with love and acceptance you are now met with judgment and admonishment. When you kick against this turn of events you’re made to believe it is because there is something wrong with you. That’s GASLIGHTING
And finally, if you are able to soldier through the gaslighting round then you emerge again at step one, and the lovebombing starts all over again. Then around and around you go, until you are so confused and craving so much to find mercy and acceptance that you will do and believe anything just to get that lovebomb again.
It’s really like a junkie, just scrambling to get their next fix and the dealers know they can ask whatever price they want… and they do.