How does a Christian group become an abusive high-demand cult? What are the factors at play? The following is an adaptation from an article by Sam Vaknin, an admitted narcissist, describing how a narcissistic leader shapes his group into a cult.
• Mr. Vaknin proposes that a narcissist, having failed to impress the world with his greatness, withdraws into a “pathological narcissistic space”. Vaunting his superior knowledge and uniqueness, he draws in unsuspecting followers.
In 1969-1970 when George first met a few of us, he was full of criticism of the Plymouth Brethren. They had lost the heavenly vision, they had become worldly, they were no different than all the other worldly churches. We didn’t know until many years later that the Brethren had refused to give George a place of leadership, because he was too domineering. George was looking for a way to begin his own independent group.
• The narcissist’s story of mistreatment and misunderstanding rallies support and sets the stage for an “us versus them” mentality in the group. His own withdrawal from society becomes an “exclusionary shared psychosis”. The outside world is an enemy. Members must cut off contact with family and former friends. He sets up rules to regulate information from the outside.
George’s excoriation of all other churches initiated this withdrawal. His overcomer teaching intensified the impetus to fear and avoid all other influences.
• The narcissist cannot tolerate criticism or disagreement of any kind. He demands complete loyalty, agreement, admiration and awe. Members of his group can become suspected enemies if they exhibit autonomy or independent thought.
George exhibited this behavior time and time again.
• If someone leaves his group he panics that they will betray information about him that will not be approved in the outside world and he reacts vehemently to silence them.
In George’s case he first pleaded with them, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”, anticipating the loss of narcissistic supply. But he quickly moved to vehemently renounce and discredit them.
• One of the main functions of his group (his narcissistic space) is to provide this constant narcissistic supply. He expects to be served and waited on. He has no concept of personal boundaries, and makes free use of everyone’s money and assets.
The narcissist forms the character of the group. He demands complete obedience and exerts almost complete control over those within his narcissistic space. He alone determines the rights and obligations of his disciples. He defines right and wrong. He dictates what is to be pursued and what is to be avoided. He is a micro-manager of the minutest details of behavior.
In addition to the “exclusionary shared psychosis”, Mr. Vaknin proposes an “inclusionary shared psychosis”. He says, “The narcissist’s cult is ‘missionary’…always on the lookout for new recruits.” His need for constant replenishing and enlarging of his narcissistic supply pushes unceasing evangelistic efforts.
More on narcissism and the Geftakys Assembly
Scott Peck’s characteristics of malignant narcissism also provide a lens through which to view a narcissist’s group:
The Malignant Narcissist as a Group Leader
Characteristics of Malignant Narcissism
Malignant Narcissism: A Stage Production
Children Are at Risk in the Cult of the Narcissist