How do cultic groups develop?
- Someone decides they have an important mission, special qualities or knowledge. They usually have some kind of charisma or powerful personality. They often have narcissistic personality traits
- They find other people that perceive them as possessing important knowledge, wisdom, charisma
- These initial followers learn how to market the group as the answer to suffering/problems
- People who are suffering (and therefore have more trauma and attachment problems than average) turn up and are indoctrinated into believing in the message or the mission
- They recruit more and more people and convince people that there is virtue in investing in the mission psychologically and financially
- The group develops methods for silencing those with concerns about the nature of the group (e.g. Scientiology’s ‘Fair Game’ policy)
What is narcissism?
Both narcissism and co-dependency are on a spectrum, but on this website I sometimes use the terms ‘narcissist’ and ‘codependent’ for simplicity. Narcissistic personality traits can be overt or covert. An overt narcissist is extroverted, charismatic, charming, has a strong sense of superiority, entitlement, lacks empathy and makes unrealistic demands of others. Covert narcissism is more difficult to spot. A covert narcissist could be more introverted but still craves admiration and is preoccupied with success. Both an overt and covert narcissist has difficulties regulating their emotions, sense of self and their self-esteem. Both have difficulties in forming and nurturing emotional bonds with others. Both are therefore emotionally neglectful. An overt narcissist would be more likely to criticise you, put you down and compare you to others they believe are more superior. A covert narcissist would be more likely to give you the silent treatment, stand you up, or act like you don’t matter without actually verbally putting you down.
Hero narcissistic personality traits are of particular relevance here. A hero narcissist tries to convince you that you have lots of problems that only they can help you solve. They may act like they are your saviour, the only one who will love you unconditionally despite how ‘damaged’ you are. They may act like they don’t need praise and worship for their generosity, and that they do it only out of kindness, but secretly they rely on constant supply of adoration and praise to survive. In this way they are co-dependent on their followers, but they have buried this need so deeply that they act like they are entirely self-sufficient.
The narcissist despises having needs and depending on others, and wants to eliminate these needs in themselves and projects this onto others. They don’t understand or see the point in other people’s emotions. Show them any emotion and they are likely to call you ‘irrational’, ‘hysterical’ and accuse you of overreacting even when they have intentionally provoked you. A narcissist believes you should be like them and that if you don’t agree with their view, it’s because your perception must be wrong, you are stupid or crazy. Some narcissists are also sociopaths or psychopaths, who enjoy inflicting suffering on others, but not all. Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths all tend to gaslight other people, convincing them that their perceptions, memory and emotional reactions are irrational and all in their mind. This is of particular relevance to abusive groups that call themselves Buddhist, as gaslighting is even easier due to the teachings.
What is co-dependency?
Someone with co-dependent personality traits usually experienced similar wounding to a narcissist as a young person, but it manifests differently in adulthood. A co-dependent doesn’t trust their own intuition, doesn’t understand their needs and may have spongy boundaries. Codependency results in people depending entirely on someone else to meet their self-esteem and emotional needs. This allows the other person to maintain their irresponsible behaviour as the codependent tends to take too much responsibility for others. If someone else has a problem, a codependent person would want to help them to the point that they neglect themselves. As a result they tend to struggle with self-care.
Narcissists and codependents tend to attract each other and become enmeshed. In a cultic environment this is even more enabled and actively encouraged through the hierarchy and teachings. Those who climb up the ladder tend to have overt narcissistic traits, and they attract codependent followers who wish to develop the qualities they have projected onto their ‘superiors’. (See page on awe and religious fervor for how more details on how this can develop through mystical manipulation).
According to Gillie Jenkinson we become even more merged with the group in a high-demand situation. In this way we can become dependent on the group in many ways. (See page on ‘Encouraging addiction, codependency and trauma bonds’ for more information).
A diagram that displays the enmeshment between a ‘Buddhist’ narcissist and codependent within a cultic environment is below:
In this way a person can become part of what Tenzin Peljor (ex-NKT member) describes as ‘a cult within a cult’ (Imperfect Buddha podcast). Cultic dynamics can operate within a 1:1 relationship between student and someone they perceive as more spiritually developed than themselves, and between the member and the ultimate leader. This is enabled also by the lack of safeguarding and intervention by other members of the group. Members of ‘Buddhist’ groups are widely reported to suggest that victims practice compassion/forgiveness towards their abuser, and practice patient acceptance with no recognition of the importance of self-protection and self-soothing prior to this. The teachings suggest that you should take on the suffering of all living beings without any recognition of potential burnout. The Bodhisattva ideal in my opinion is a severe martyr complex.
This means that people with narcissistic traits (who tend to be more sadistic) are enabled to abuse those with codependent traits (who tend to struggle with self-care and can be masochistic), under the illusion that everyone is practicing wisdom and compassion, with no safeguarding policies to protect people and no channels for whistleblowing. For an article on how psychopaths infiltrate groups in order to meet their own needs (for example, access to vulnerable people) click here.
I assume that most people reading this would be suffering with codependent traits (narcissists don’t tend to read recovery based materials or work with therapists very often).
Live-in cult involvement tends to destroy peoples boundaries. You have little privacy and personal space. Recovering your personal boundaries requires having physical and psychological privacy. Securing a private, comfortable place to rest, shower, cry, do whatever you need to do, is a basic need in my opinion.
Working with an empathetic therapist who understands narcissistic abuse could be easier and more soothing than trying to understand your codependency alone. However Gillie Jenkinson states that it’s important that the therapist understands the cult pseudo-personality. She also warns that working with pre-existing low self esteem immediately could lead the ex-member to feel more ashamed and blamed for their recruitment. Instead she argues that understanding thought reform and the way in which the group operates would be more therapeutic (Jenkinson, 2008).
Following understanding how the group operates to destroy your physical and psychological boundaries, and creates the pseudo-personality, you could explore your pre-existing codependent traits and the origins of these. This could include having a narcissistic parent, and early experiences of abuse (physical, sexual or emotional). Emotional neglect, which is more difficult to recognise, for example through parental mental health difficulties, could also play a role in the development of codependency. Children of parents with mental health difficulties tend to feel a strong sense of responsibility towards the parent in the same way that they might towards the cultic group (and towards all living beings).
On a personal note: Due to the teachings on the Bodhisattva ideal, a toxic relationship (cult within a cult) and my pre-existing codependency, I felt like I had been hypnotised to feel over-responsible for others and to patiently accept (enable) their irresponsible behaviour. Once I began realising I was indoctrinated (in the last couple of weeks whilst still living at Nagarjuna KMC) I started to watch videos which included brief information and affirmations on the topic of ‘intimacy without responsibility’. Repeatedly hearing messages about healthy ‘interdependence’ whilst in a relaxed state I believe helped me to feel able to leave the NKT for good (with support from friends and family). I could not read detailed, in depth writing about codependency and narcissism as my concentration was poor, however I was able to listen to audios which seemed to talk to the same part of my brain and subconscious as the NKT teachings had. I do not include the material that I used here in case anyone else has a bad experience with them. Generally I would not recommend self-hypnosis however I do believe it did help me in this case to give me a (perhaps temporary) boost in confidence that empowered me to leave.
Daniel Shaw ‘Relational Systems of the Traumatizing Narcissist’