Why People Join Cults, the Difference Between Sociopaths, Psychopaths + Tips On Healing from Abusive Relationships with Therapist Rachel Bernstein

The unknown and uncertain can be frightening, especially when it comes to the darker side of human nature. In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with licensed marriage and family therapist and Indoctrination podcast host Rachel Bernstein about the appeal of cults, how to help someone who gets involved in a cult, the difference between cult leaders, narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths, if it’s possible for a psychopath to heal, how to recover from emotional abuse, and how to find freedom and safety in a relationship.

Although many of us may know or hear about cults from the latest hit podcast series like Wondery’s GURU or a hit documentary on Netflix, they are something we should all be aware of, especially as more and more of them have started recruiting vulnerable people online during the current pandemic. Cults come in many different forms. However, there are several warning signs to watch out for when it comes to any cult. Most cult leaders have a narcissistic bent: if what they are promising doesn’t work for you, then that is your problem—there is something wrong with you, not them. Cults are also characterized by a closed loop of information. Their leaders often say something like “don’t tell people about us because they will hold you back" or "they are jealous of the ‘secret’ knowledge you have.” If anyone in your life tries to warn you that what they are saying sounds odd, the cult will tell you to get rid of that “negative energy” in your life. Lastly, cults are defined by the idea of scarcity; they tend to say that what they are offering won’t be available forever. They don’t want you to take time to think about what they are saying—they want you to just join so you don’t “miss out”.

As Rachel notes, when people get involved in a cult, they often don’t know it is a cult. It starts as something like a self-esteem or self-discovery class, which gives the person a kind of instant community that makes them feel like they belong and keep them going. The more the person gets involved, the more they use hooks to keep this person in, like telling them that this is the “only way”, preying on their conscience, prioritizing their commitments and promising that they are “about to get there” and that the “miracle is about to happen”.

A lot of controlling relationships are like a cult. The abusive partner can be charismatic without any kind of conscience, like a cult leader. They can also be good at reading people, and use that to intimidate the other person, creating a very intense system that is hard to break away from, which will make you feel like you are stuck in a vicious hamster wheel.

How can we tell if we are in an abusive, cult-like relationship? As Rachel points out, there are several warning signs: 

  1. How they act when no one is watching. One of the most important warning signs of emotional manipulation and abuse is how someone behaves behind closed doors. Do people think that you are crazy or too sensitive when you say that they are abusive? Do the people in your life only see the more charming and friendly side of your partner? Abusers, especially narcissistic ones, are very good at putting on a show for others.
  1. They zero in on you. You essentially become their “prey”; they try make you feel special because they chose you, not because of who you are.
  1. They say that they can replace you. They want you to feel that you can be replaced at any time, and they are the best that you can and will do in a relationship.  
  1. They silence you. They intimidate you to keep their bad behavior a secret.
  1. They threaten you. There is always the threat of being punished if you step out of line. 
  1. They are passive aggressive. They tend to make snide, little comments that make you feel shame, then play them off as jokes.
  1. They want you to say sorry. They will make you feel like you need to apologize constantly.
  1. They rewrite your history. They ask leading questions about your past, and try change the way you see what happened so that you will believe that they are the only person you can trust.
  1. They play on your conscience. If they can’t control you through charm, they will find another way. They will play on your conscience, try to play the victim, and tap into the protective part of you, saying things like “I don’t want you to abandon me like those other people did…”.

This kind of narcissistic abuse is different to someone who is self-centred. Someone who is very selfish feels entitled to what they want and desire. They see the world through their eyes, and only want to talk about or focus the attention on themselves. A narcissist, on the other hand, will try to make you feel like you did something wrong for having basic human needs. They will make you think you are selfish, and try to teach you a lesson if you speak about what is bothering you. Your value is based on how you feed their ego; your pain and what happened to you doesn’t matter. Narcissists are very parasitic people, draining your energy and making you feel exhausted and alone. In many cases, narcissism develops during childhood, when someone does not get what they need emotionally, and grows over time.

What if you suspect that someone you know or care about is in an abusive or narcissistic relationship? There are several red flags to watch out for:

  1. Does the person you care about seemed drained and exhausted all the time? Do they seem unhappy? Does their partner look happy and healthy? How do they look and act together? These kinds of relationships have a very parasitic quality, which you can often see.
  2. Does it all seem too good to be true, too quickly?
  3. Are they controlling how you see or spend time with your loved one?

Thankfully, in any kind of abusive relationship healing is always possible, even though it will take time. As Rachel points out, recovering from an abusive relationship can be very hard because there is a lot of shame is involved. The most important thing to remember is that it is nothing you did. An abuser is a master manipulator. No matter how this person made you feel, you need to remind yourself that are not responsible for how they acted. You are only human. You have needs, and you have every right to have those needs met. 

Thankfully, in any kind of abusive relationship, healing is always possible, even though it will take time. As Rachel points out, recovering from an abusive relationship can be very hard because there is a lot of shame involved. The most important thing to remember is that it is nothing you did. An abuser is a master manipulator. No matter how this person made you feel, you need to remind yourself that are not responsible for how they acted. You are only human. You have needs, and you have every right to have those needs met.  

You should also:

  1. Connect/reconnect with others. Reach out to your loved ones who were wary in the beginning and people who have been in similar relationships.
  2. Understand what happened to you, what makes a narcissist tick or how a cult can control you. Educate yourself, see the signs and learn how they manipulate and abuse people.
  3. There will always have some kind of draw, so stay strong and try not to get pulled back in. If someone you know keeps going back to that cult or relationship, don’t be punitive. It is very hard to break these kinds of emotional ties, so just be a safe space that they can come back to and be patient. Let them know that you are there for them.
  4. Don’t tell the person or cult you are planning to leave. Don’t let them know what you are planning.
  5. Be very consistent. Don’t give them a way in. When you can, break off from them totally.
  6. Remember that everything they told you or promised you are lies. Only when you are free and safe can you make the best decisions for you and live your best life.

What happens if the abuser is a sociopath or psychopath? How do can you tell if someone has these character traits? Although sociopaths are often more aware of their feelings, they tend to feel singled out and nurse a huge amount of hurt and bitterness; they tend to plan their revenge and wreak havoc because they feel that the world is against them, either from their past experiences or perceived wrongs. They are very angry, bitter and upset with the world. Psychopaths, on the other hand, can be more unnerving, as there is not a lot going on behind their eyes. They don’t really feel human, and they feel capable of doing anything to anyone because they have no boundaries. They have no guilt/shame/responsibility and don’t register other people’s pain. Often, these types of abusive personalities are a learned behavior; they come from systematic and repeated abuse and neglect and grow over time.

As Rachel notes, there is, however, a very small percentage of people that are born psychopaths. You start to see the signs of this early on, especially in how they treat animals and how they treat people. These kinds of people are often very intelligent and secretive or reclusive, and are very different to narcissists, who are usually charming, great in social settings, astute, and can read people very well.

Can these people change? Is it possible for them to find healing? As Rachel points out, it is very hard for psychopaths to change; their inner drive stays the same, but they can try to find ways to control their behavior if they really want to. A sociopath may change when they feel understood, loved and accepted, but they still may harbor a lot of anger or hold grudges. A narcissist can change if they can develop that “high” from another source (rather than abusing people they get close to), but they will always have to tend to the empty place inside of them, which can be exhausting in a relationship. One thing is for certain, they all need to be desperate to change, and willing to do the hard mental and emotional work necessary for change, if they truly want to change.

For more on overcoming abusive relationships and finding healing, listen to my podcast with Rachel (episode #186), and visit her website. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).

Podcast Highlights

1:56 Why Rachel helps people regain their freedom in relationships

3:34 How Rachel helps people who get involved in cults 

8:21 Why do people join cults?

15:28 How to spot a cult

21:36 The different kinds of cults

26:30 How do you recognize emotional manipulation and abuse? 

33:10 What is the difference between a narcissist and being selfish?

36:11 How do we protect ourselves from abusive relationships?

42:00 How to help someone recover from an abusive relationship?

46:36 What is the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths? 

Switch On Your Brain LLC. is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact info@drleaf.com.

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