Dan Neuharth Ph.D. MFT

14 Ways Narcissists Can Be Like Cult Leaders

By Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT
Last updated: 27 Apr 2019

The tactics some narcissists use to get their way in personal relationships can be strikingly similar to the coercive tactics used by destructive cult leaders.If you have a spouse, family member, friend, or boss who is narcissistic, ask yourself whether any of the following 14 characteristics of destructive cults parallel your relationship with the narcissist.

  1. Cult leaders act larger than life. They are viewed as innately good, possessing special wisdom, answerable to no one, with no one above them.
  2. Cult members’ rights are subjugated for the “good” of the group, leader, or cause. Members are told that what the cult wants them to do is for their own good, even if it is self-destructive.
  3. An “Us vs. Them” attitude prevails. Outsiders are viewed as dangerous or enemies. This turns members’ focus outward, reducing the chances they will spot problems within the cult. In addition, viewing others as enemies is used to justify extreme actions because of the “dangers” outsiders pose.
  4. The leader or cause becomes all-important. Members devote inordinate amounts of time to the leader and group, leaving little time for self-care or reflection.
  5. Feelings are devalued, minimized, or manipulated. Shame, guilt, coercion, and appeals to fear keep members in line. Members are led to discount their instincts and intuition and told to seek answers from the leader or cult’s teachings. Over time, members can lose touch with their previous habits and values.
  6. Questioning and dissent are not tolerated. Having doubts about the leader or cult is considered shameful or sinful. Members are told that doubts or dissent indicate something wrong with the member.
  7. The ends justify the means. The “rightness” of the leader and cult justifies behavior that violates most people’s standards for ethics and honesty. In the zealotry of the cult, anything goes.
  8. Closeness to the cult and leader is rewarded while distance is punished. Temporary ostracism is used to punish behavior that doesn’t conform to group rules. Members fear being estranged from the group and losing their identities and the benefits of group membership.
  9. Cult members are on an endless treadmill of “becoming.” Only the cult leader is considered perfect. All other members must strive to emulate the leader. Most cults are set up so that members can never achieve this perfection, which keeps them dependent.
  10. Lies are repeated so often they seem true. The cult leader cannot be wrong and never needs to apologize.
  11. Cult leaders enrich themselves at members’ expense. Members are encouraged or coerced into gratifying the leader’s needs by giving up time, money, and more.
  12. Communication is coercive or deceptive. Things are not always what they seem. This fosters confusion, leaving members vulnerable. When confused, they seek solace from the aura of certainty the leader seems to possess.
  13. Sameness is encouraged. Certain kinds of appearance, behavior, and  cult terms and language become the norm for members. Over time, members come to identify themselves as part of an entity rather than as individuals.
  14. Doing what the leader wants is presented as the path to enlightenment or happiness. In time, this leads members to give up their old habits and norms. They live in a bubble, filtering out information that might weaken their resolve.

If you notice similarities between such techniques and your relationship with a narcissistic person, keep in mind:

  • Cults and narcissists use powerful forms of manipulation but there is nothing magical about what they do. Understanding their methods can allow you to avoid being taken in.
  • If someone is narcissistic, be mindful of sharing personal information with that person, as it may be used against you.
  • In any adult relationship you have the right to confront, prevent, or remove yourself from manipulation or coercive control at any time. You do not need to give a reason and you do not need the other person’s permission.
  • In any adult relationship you have the right to ask questions, make your own decisions and honor your own values and goals.
  • Nobody has the right to tell you what to think or how to feel.

Additional readings on destructive cults and narcissism:

Characteristics of cults
Traits of dangerous cult leaders
Psychology of the cult experience
Telltale signs of cults
What cults don’t want you to know
Techniques of thought reform
Brainwashing techniques
How narcissistic leaders manipulate group dynamics
Cults of personality
Sociopathic cult leaders

Copyright © 2017 by Dan Neuharth, PhD MFT

Seth Meyers Psy.D.

Dr. Seth Meyers, Los Angeles psychologist and relationship expert, offers expert commentary on TV and to various media outlets on relationships and mental health issues. He is a writer for Psychology Today and eharmony, and is the author of Overcome Relationship Repeititon Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve (Simon and Schuster). 


Narcissistic Parents’ Psychological Effect on Their Children

Narcissistic parents will never understand the breadth of their impact on kids.

Posted May 01, 2014


The topic of narcissism begs the following question flashing in neon lights: Why would a narcissist want a child to begin with? Aren’t they so focused on themselves that they wouldn’t have the slightest interest in paying attention to others, much less attending to a needy young child who craves constant attention and praise?

Alas, the question presumes a type of normalcy and natural order of the parent-child relationship that betrays the root of narcissism. The truth is, narcissistic parents don’t have children because they want to nurture and guide their offspring through life; they have children so that they have an automatic, built-in relationship in which they have power, one in which the narcissist

…can write the rules without any checks and balances.

Understand this: Control over someone else is the ultimate jackpot every narcissist works so hard to win. The reality of narcissistic parenting couldn’t be sadder: The child of the narcissist realizes early on that he exists to provide a reflection for the parent and to serve the parent – not the other way around.

If you comb through online relationship forums and chat rooms devoted to the subject of adult children of narcissists, you’ll find that all of the posters of comments have suffered similar bruises at the hands of a narcissistic parent. To read some of the comments is heartbreaking, and they call into question how strange and illogical it is to create such rigorous adoption laws when an ill-fit individual can procreate whenever they want – and mess up the life of a child without suffering a consequence. The real tragedy occurs behind closed doors at home, much like the process of physical abuse.

The problem with being a child of a narcissist is that it takes these children so many years of frustration and anguish to figure out that Mom or Dad isn’t quite right; until that point, these children are merely dancing as fast as they can, trying to please the impossible-to-please…

…narcissistic parent. It takes years to finally see that the type of parenting they’ve been receiving is wrong – if not emotionally abusive.

Young children of narcissists learn early in life that everything they do is a reflection on the parent to the point that the child must fit into the personality and behavioral mold intended for them. These children bear tremendous anxiety from a young age as they must continually push aside their own personality in order to please the parent and provide the mirror image the parent so desperately needs. If these children fail to comply with the narcissist’s wishes or try to set their own goals for their life – God, forbid – the children will be overtly punished, frozen out or avoided for a period of time – hours, days or even weeks depending on the perceived transgression in the eyes of the narcissistic parent.

With young children, the narcissistic parent is experienced as unpredictable and confusing. After all, narcissists are awfully difficult to understand for adults, so just imagine how confusing the capricious narcissist is in the eyes of a young child! Because young kids can’t make accurate sense of the narcissist’s interpersonal tricks and stunts, these children internalize intense shame (‘I keep failing my Mom’) which leads to anger that the child turns on himself (‘I’m so stupid,’ ‘Something’s wrong with me’). The overall quality and strength of the bond between the narcissistic parent and young child are poor and weak. Deep down, the child doesn’t feel consistently loved, as the child is taught the metaphoric Narcissistic Parenting Program: You’re only as good as I say you are, and you’ll be loved only if you’re fully compliant with my wishes. Simply put, it’s truly heartbreaking for the child – although the narcissistic parent is sinfully oblivious.

It’s not until many years later that the life experiences of the child of the narcissist start to make a little more sense. Friends often catch glimpses of the kind of ‘crazy’ parenting these individuals received, so he or she starts to get a healthy reality check like this: “Your mom is insane,” or “Your Dad is seriously messed up.”

How Narcissistic Parenting Impacts the Adult Relationships of Children of Narcissists

Because the narcissistic parent-child bond was so distorted and corrupt, the offspring as adults tend to gravitate toward drama-laden, roller-coaster relationships – especially with romantic partners. Because they didn’t grow up with the belief that they were intrinsically okay and good, it makes perfect sense that these individuals would gravitate toward stormy romantic partners later. These adults would feel like a fish out of water in a relationship with someone who loved them consistently, and the experience would be so unfamiliar that it would cause major anxiety. Accordingly, these individuals tend to seek out partners who are emotionally unavailable, critical or withholding – just like Mommy and/or Daddy was in the past. In short, the only kind of relationship the adult child of a narcissist really fits in with is one with a highly skewed dynamic: The child of the narcissist must cater to and keep their partner happy, even when that involves squashing her own needs and feelings.

It’s not until the adult children of a narcissist get (a lot of) psychotherapy or have a life-changing experience that pulls them away them from the disturbed parent that these adult children can truly begin to heal – and then create better, more normal relationships that offer the give-and-take reciprocity most of us have and value in our relationships.

What’s interesting to note is the narcissistic parent’s reaction to witnessing healthy psychological change in their child. Once the child or adult child of the narcissist starts to get psychologically healthier and begins to distance himself a bit from the parent, the narcissistic parent experiences a sort of existential panic. Often, it’s a psychotherapist, colleague, or friend who plants the seeds of change, declaring to the child that the parent is toxic and emotionally abusive. Thrust into fight mode, the narcissistic parent feels furious and works to ostracize the individual suspected of inducing the change and pulling the child away from the parent’s tight grip. Though it can initially be confusing to the adult child why the narcissistic parent verbally tears apart his closest confidants, the parent’s reaction ultimately shows the adult child what matters most to the narcissistic parent: his or her own emotional needs – not those of the adult child.

If you happen to be someone who has suffered at the hands of a narcissistic parent, talk to your friends and other family members about your experience, and consider talking to a mental health professional. After years of dealing with the inconsistency of a narcissistic parent, it can be extremely healing to have a therapist help you make sense of the craziness.

Seth Meyers is the author of Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.

Tara Westover, Educated

“…How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?” — Vogue

Educated by [Tara Westover]

For readers of The Glass Castle and Wild, a stunning new memoir about family, loss and the struggle for a better future

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (February 20, 2018)

Publication Date: February 20, 2018

For readers of The Glass Castle and Wild, a stunning new memoir about family, loss and the struggle for a better future

#1 International Bestseller

Tara Westover was seventeen when she first set foot in a classroom. Instead of traditional lessons, she grew up learning how to stew herbs into medicine, scavenging in the family scrap yard and helping her family prepare for the apocalypse. She had no birth certificate and no medical records and had never been enrolled in school.

Westover’s mother proved a marvel at concocting folk remedies for many ailments. As Tara developed her own coping mechanisms, little by little, she started to realize that what her family was offering didn’t have to be her only education. Her first day of university was her first day in school—ever—and she would eventually win an esteemed fellowship from Cambridge and graduate with a PhD in intellectual history and political thought.

For readers of The Glass Castle and Wild, a stunning new memoir about family, loss and the struggle for a better future

#1 International Bestseller

Tara Westover was seventeen when she first set foot in a classroom. Instead of traditional lessons, she grew up learning how to stew herbs into medicine, scavenging in the family scrap yard and helping her family prepare for the apocalypse. She had no birth certificate and no medical records and had never been enrolled in school.

Westover’s mother proved a marvel at concocting folk remedies for many ailments. As Tara developed her own coping mechanisms, little by little, she started to realize that what her family was offering didn’t have to be her only education. Her first day of university was her first day in school—ever—and she would eventually win an esteemed fellowship from Cambridge and graduate with a PhD in intellectual history and political thought.

Jayanti Tamm, Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult


Jayanti Tamm, Contributor Huffpost

Author and professor, Jayanti Tamm is the author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult. She was a Princeton University Mid-Career Fellow.

What Is A Cult? Recognizing And Avoiding Unhealthy Groups

04/14/2011 01:27 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2011


Who in our over-stimulated, media-saturated, hyper-connected world would ever go and knowingly join a cult? The answer is no one.

No one wakes up one morning and decides to join a cult. Even if someone did, good luck trying to look up the address for the nearest local cult, for there isn’t a single group that would ever admit to or advertise as being a cult. And why would they? The word ‘cult’ is explosive, loaded with connotations of brainwashing, lunatics, and mass suicide — not exactly an ideal marketing strategy. For the most part, cults are keenly and obsessively aware of their public persona and consciously labor to maintain a positive image.

Scrolling through their websites, their mission statements are warmly fuzzy and vague; they promise redemption, renewal, rejuvenation, and reinvention. They offer answers, solutions, and happiness. It’s all there, yours for the taking. What isn’t included is the reality beneath the surface, the leader’s demands for obedience from its members, the psychological pressure, the ability to subordinate all activities to the leader’s will.

But most people don’t find and join cults through Internet searches. Most people stumble upon them accidentally. A flyer in the laundromat for a free meditation class. A listing in the newspaper for a community service project. A poster at the library for a musical performance. Recruitment is purposefully subtle; the pull is gentle, gradual. Events are welcoming; attention is lavished on the visitor with the intention to create an environment that feels inclusive, nonthreatening, and safe. The visitor is warmly encouraged to return, to step in closer. It is not until later, often much later, that one may look around and, with great surprise, discover the strange terrain upon which one now stands.

Cults, whether they are offshoots of Eastern or Western traditional religions, are surprisingly
similar in their methods and means. The tactics and techniques used to recruit, maintain, and
disown noncompliant members seem pulled from a universal handbook of do’s and don’ts.
With all of their rules and restrictions, laws and codes, ultimately cults are about grasping and preserving absolute and unconditional control.

Cults are fueled by and thrive on control. The willingness to surrender control comes from
excessive devotion to the leader and the leader’s vision. The leader’s personal agenda is
presented as a universal elixir, one that will eradicate both personal and global moral, ethical, and spiritual maladies. The follower’s faith becomes both the provider and the enabler.

Faith in the mission, faith in the leader is an agent used to unify a disparate collection of strong individuals from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The loss of the individual is the gain of the group. Individual achievements are discouraged, downplayed and finally eradicated while the group’s achievements are encouraged, celebrated and memorialized.

To maintain the unity and cohesion of the cult, there is a clear separation between those ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ Members are holy, special, chosen; outsiders are unholy, ignorant, toxic. Contact with the outside world — often including family — is discouraged, and family is redefined as the group itself. In this new family, subjugation and subservience is expected and obedience and control is demanded. From one’s sexuality to one’s personal hygiene, the leader possesses unquestioned, absolute authority over its members’ lives. For a cult leader, it is imperative to seem infallible, to possess the answers, the solutions, the only route to salvation. The leader is fierce in singular righteousness, in the design to hail oneself absolute. A narcissist with insatiable needs for power, control, and, very often fame, the leader seeks affirmation of supreme authority through alignment with public figures and celebrities, achieving large numbers of recruits, and amassing private fiefdoms.Bottom of Form

Through the need to please the leader, to ascend the ranks, to work to fulfill the leader’s vision, cults dictate followers’ actions and thoughts. Obedient members receive exalted status and conformity is enforced through notions of guilt, shame, and failure by both the leader and other members. A system of reporting on members for transgressions creates both an internal police force and opportunities for promotion and rewards for turning in brother and sister members. Those who violate the rules are punished and eventually, to maintain the coherent group unity, expelled. After time, the group assumes all roles — family, friends, church, home, work, community, and departing, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, after years or even decades, without having a concrete safety net is challenging, and sometimes utterly impossible. The world on the other side appears frightening and overwhelming.

Just who is so easily swept up in the group-think and loss of individuality that are hallmarks of cults? A misconception is that there is a certain ‘type’ — usually imbalanced, weak — that not only finds themselves caught inside a cult but that isn’t able to extract themselves from it. The truth is, there isn’t one typical profile, ‘type.’ People with advanced degrees and people without any formal education are both equally likely to find themselves swaddled in orange robes or holed up in a compound. The urge to be a part of something is elemental, raw, and natural. To have a defined goal, a purpose, offers meaning. Most people strive for acceptance within social groups and long for affirmation from others. Be it in an office or country club, adjustments are made to conform, to gain approval and to advance.

In cults, extremism is the norm. When hyper devotion is expected behavior, for acceptance new recruits tend to rapidly thrust themselves into the prescribed lifestyle much to the chagrin of their family and friends on the ‘outside.’ There is no blame, no fault for having the audacity to plunge into belief, into faith so deeply, so forcefully that critical and analytical red flags, even if they once appeared, are snapped off. Belief and faith are such intoxicants that logical reason and facts become blurry and nonsensical.

While the boundary between cults and religion often feels confusing — the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions differ only slightly with cults being “small” in size and possessing “beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Deciding what is strange or sinister certainly depends on the beholder. When accusations of being in a cult appear, members quickly and vehemently deny they are in a cult — they are part of a ‘spiritual path,’ a ‘special church,’ a ‘progressive movement’ — other groups are cults, but not theirs. No way.

Perhaps it is more useful to discern what a religious movement is or what a cult is by comparing its impact upon members’ lives: does it compliment or control? At their best, healthy religions and organizations compliment rich, full lives by offering balance, community, comfort. At their worst, they lapse into vehicles demanding control. Cults limit lives into narrow, claustrophobic existences whose singular purpose is the cult itself.

Cult leaders, experts in psychological manipulation, prey on both the follower’s ability to believe and need to belong. But this type of behavior is hardly limited to cults. After all, the aptitude and capacity to exploit human beings is universal, and, with the right ambitious and charismatic leader, any group easily could morph into a cult. What prevents that from occurring is that most established religions and groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain that from happening; cults, however, are purposefully designed so that the only restraints are the ones placed upon the people who, without even realizing it, have just done what they never thought they would do — join a cult.

Is it a Cult? The Top Ten Signs the ‘Group’ You’ve Joined is Not what It Seems

  1. The leader and group are always correct and anything the leader does can be justified.

·  Questions, suggestions, or critical inquiry are forbidden.

·  Members incessantly scramble with cramped schedules and activities full of largely meaningless work based on the leader’s agenda

·  Followers are meant to believe that they are never good enough.

·  Required dependency upon the leader and group for even the most basic problem-solving.

·  Reporting on members for disobedient actions or thoughts is mandated and rewarded.

·  Monetary, sexual, or servile labor is expected to gain promotion.

·  The ‘outside’ world — often including family and friends — is presented as rife with impending catastrophe, evil, and temptations.

·  Recruitment of new members is designed to be purposefully upbeat and vague about the actual operations of the leader and group.

·  Former members are shunned and perceived as hostile.

Jayanti Tamm is the author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult (Three Rivers Press). She is a Visiting Professor in the MFA Program at Queens College, CUNY.

Mackenzi Kingdon, MA, LMHCA, Spiritual Abuse


Home >GoodTherapy Blog >Shame and Silence: Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

Shame and Silence: Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

February 1, 2017 • Contributed by Mackenzi Kingdon, MA, LMHCA, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert



Spiritual abuse is sneaky. It hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. But know that if you have experienced spiritual abuse or oppression, you are not alone, and compassionate help and support can help you overcome its effects.


Parent-child spiritual abuse, while common, may be tricky to recognize, as the line between abuse and influence can at times be blurry one. When does the attempt to influence and shape a child’s moral outlook through religious upbringing cross the line into abuse?

I imagine many individuals, when considering the topic of spiritual abuse, think of the movie Carrie. In this film, Carrie suffers extreme physical and spiritual abuse at the hands of her mother, all in the name of God.

Spiritual abuse perpetuated by parents, not always obvious or blatant, can be seen when parents:

  • Encourage single-minded thinking. When parents discourage questions or shut a child down for challenging what they learn, they are teaching the child that critical thinking is not valuable.
  • Use exclusive language or “us vs. them” mentality when referring to those who do not adhere to the same religious group. This language serves to give children a pointed message about the organization of social relationships and can encourage both an elitist mentality or a savior complex.
  • Stifle a child’s interest in learning about other religious practices. This often furthers exclusive language by sending the message that others might be dangerous, evil, etc.
  • Force a child to participate in certain rituals such as prayer, worship, communion, bowing, group participation, repentance, public displays of adherence, etc. A child who does not wish to participate likely has a reason, and parents who ignore the child’s choices send the message that children do not have the freedom to make their own choices.
  • Force a child to remain in an environment where a traumatic event occurred. Children who have an extreme reaction to a religious environment typically do so for a reason. Parents may be unaware a traumatic event has taken place, but to ignore the child’s reaction instead of attempting to discover the reason for it is likely to teach the child they cannot expect to be protected from harm, even by their parents.

The parent-child dynamic of spiritual abuse should not be equated with a parent’s attempt to raise a child in a religious household. Parents who follow a particular faith may read their child stories from a religious text, explain why certain morals are important or why they hold certain beliefs, and bring their child to church events. These are not examples of abuse when they are not forced on a child.

Further, parents who encourage their child to ask questions and provide the child with explanations instead of simply saying, “Because God says so,” can help their child learn, grow, and think critically. It is often worth it for a parent to take the time to explain to a child why they chose to follow a particular faith, as this serves to introduce the child to that unique and important aspect of the parent’s life.


Society as a whole has become more aware of cult practices in recent years. Cults might exist as small branches of major religions or are large organizations in their own right, and they may be difficult to recognize or define. People who have left them, however, often report abusive practices, though many share that they did not recognize these tactics as abuse until they had a chance to step away from them.

Some of the following may be questions to consider:

  • Am I in danger? Physical danger? Danger of a destroyed reputation?
  • Am I being forced to pay money in order to become spiritually enlightened?
  • Have I been shamed for thinking differently?
  • Have I been equipped with the tools to research my beliefs on my own, or are there only a chosen few individuals who are authorized to give me information?
  • Is there a ranking system? Am I being taught that I am somehow lesser than other individuals?
  • Is my individuality unappreciated or unwelcomed?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may wish to carefully consider the religious group to which you belong. It may be a good idea to seek the support of a trusted friend or family member along with professional help from a counselor, particularly one trained to provide help with spiritual and religious issues. A person should not have to worry that sharing their worries or opinions will lead to judgment or recrimination.